Untitled (black sun), 2009, Oil and ink on panel, 34" x 48"
Photo: courtesy of Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects
Whitney Bedford has been studying painting for decades, despite being just in her mid-30s. She was born in Baltimore, and was already accomplished at the easel before heading to the unlikely (for a painter) choice of RISD for her undergraduate degree, where her first job was printing Andre the Giant stickers for fellow RISD alum Shepard Fairey. She graduated in 1998, a few terms behind Laura Owens. In 2003, she earned an MFA from UCLA, after first spending two years on a Fulbright studying architecture in Berlin, which she recalls as a “transformational city, full of optimism. And it’s good to make work in an optimistic place.” Local audiences first encountered her work in LA Louver’s 2005 “Rogue Wave” show.
In keeping with her penchant for globetrotting, while she was headed to UCLA, Bedford also started spending lots of time in Rio de Janeiro. Then at a certain point, the disparate threads which she had been pursuing throughout her trans-global education began weaving themselves together in earnest. In Rio, her architect’s heart fell in love with “the ghost of Le Corbusier” in the grand urban planning and choreography between the city and the sea. Her inner art historian became fascinated with devotional art and with shipwrecks, and with other mythical/legendary oceanic phenomena like icebergs and underwater volcanic eruptions. A better ready-made metaphor than this last—the theme of her current exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter—can hardly be imagined. Like the shipwrecks and lonely icebergs, these powerful testaments to the beauty of Nature’s destruction are rarely witnessed by human survivors, and make for rich psychological metaphors. Bedford readily admits that much of her practice has to do with working through events in her personal life; as these self-aware deconstructions advance to the pubic sphere, they cohere into suites that both illuminate and transcend her private inspirations.
Noting the prevalence of various art historical references in her paintings, she’ll flash an infectious sideways grin and casually drop a remark like, “Oh yeah, there’s always a little Géricault in there.” Such influences and subjects persist in her work, even as she gives them her standard “dematerialization” treatment. “I take away form and replace it with emotion and palette,” she explains, offering an upside-down color scheme where water is rendered in earth tones, and the sky and air have a toxic floridity. Her LA color sense is “artificial,” all oranges and tawny gray, whereas in Brazil it was green, and in the South of France, blue, blue, blue. She works on panel partly because the wood has a symbolic resonance with her themes, and partly because she loves how it handles different kinds of paint.
Though she claims the work in the Vielmetter show is entirely intuitive, the scenes always hinge on a distinct horizon line and well-plotted economies of scale that render them legible. Her subject matter—swirling steam and smoke, expanses of water and air—is abstract already. In Untitled (lovers), 2009 (oil and ink on panel, 60" x 84"), she hurls a fuchsia fireball and animates the scene with stark horizontal lighting launched by one water-mass at the other. Untitled (black sun), 2009 (oil and ink on panel, 34" x 48") presents a luminous, shadow-tinged lavender sky, cupping the black disc of sun in a toxic yellow halo. Bedford’s trademark slip of sunlight reflected at the horizon line, resting on the edge of the ocean, is a small but beckoning waver that activates the naturalism of entire volumes of space. Its appearance reminds the viewer that reality is being stripped of its form, the better to be symbolically explored and more truly represented—which, one can imagine Bedford asserting, is the point of art in the first place.
Whitney Bedford’s newest work can be seen at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects, from May 30 - July 11, 2009.
This article was written for and published in art ltd. magazine