Meanwhile, in the Midlands, young abstract painter Betsy Bradley has been having a party on death row. Neon yellow pulses through Ultrasonic (2020). Green spray paint flashes lens-flare-like over the cobalt blue of Fireworks (2021). There’s even a luminous Boogie Wall (2021). Yet for all its alert- and aliveness, Bradley’s first major solo exhibition Chasing Rainbows at Ikon gallery is quiet and unhurried. The 29-year-old’s meditative practice mixes vibrant colour and a healthy dose of Buddhist samvega (spiritual urgency) with unapologetically expressive abstract mark making.
Chasing Rainbows with Betsy Bradley
"I see my paintings really as sort of like a dance between myself and the paint"
How you would describe your practice?
I see painting as a life force really. I feel like it's a medium that’s so connected to our being - it's a direct translation of so many things that make us human, such as energy and thought. I see my paintings as a dance between myself and the paint, but also, between thought and action, body and mind. My process is very playful, and I'm interested in painting as being this fluid, adaptable form. Because obviously, painting is operating in such a broad arena these days, and has been expanding for so long - but I've still got that real infatuation with mark making: exploring that middle ground between expansion in a more sculptural sense, and the paintings being this adaptable thing, but also continuing that fascination with gesture and mark making as well.
How do you think about colour? The exhibition title Chasing Rainbows might suggest that colour is its own joy – something to be desired, or sought after?
Rainbows, for me, are a really good example of the kind of intangible phenomena that I'm inspired by. The way I use colour in my work is always intuitive - I suppose it's looking to let the colours interact in the most natural way. Not making too many deliberate decisions or combining particular colours, but just letting the colours surprise me as I go. And maybe new colours are created through through the layering of different colour gestures. You might get these hues that sometimes mimic things like light pollution in the night sky - it's not really a colour that you can grasp, because it's this transient phenomenon.
"Not making too many deliberate decisions or combining particular colours, but just letting the colours surprise me as I go."
How do you create or foster the conditions for spontaneity, surprise and play?
My process involves a great deal of psyching up, in a sense, or just being quite still and preserving energy for a long time. I practice meditation a lot as well, which is very helpful for letting go of thoughts and generating a much more spacious mind. It’s not like I directly meditate and then paint, but I think because I meditate frequently, that's one of the main things that helps set up those conditions for being really free and spontaneous. Because I'm not overthinking things or making too deliberate a decision, I’m just being as much like a child at play as possible. Children just follow, in that particular moment, what's going on, completely absorbed in it in the present moment.
One of the works in the show is called Kensho. What does this word mean to you?
It's a Japanese word, used within the Zen tradition. You can never translate it completely accurately into another language, I think, but the closest you can get is sort of like your true, inner essence; your true nature or something. [My painting] Kensho, for me, embodies that complete letting-go-in-the-moment; it just happened. I wasn't even really aware of it happening as a painting. I think I was making lots of paintings at once, and it was just one from that group. It just really had its own voice like it was its own entity. And it has that translucency as well, which reveals the woodgrain beneath, the structure of the painting support, which just happened coincidentally.
You paint on muslin, voile and organza… How you choose your materials?
Moving away from traditional canvas started out of the need to improvise, which is a really important part of my process, especially now. But at the time, I just really wanted to make a painting and all there was around was a dust sheet, so I painted on that. And it started something off, playing with conventional painting supports. It’s also the reverse of the function of a dust sheet - I thought there was a slightly humorous irony in that, especially as it looks a lot like linen, which is really expensive, and obviously, a dust sheet and the other fabrics I use are very affordable and available. It's about turning conventions on their head and playing with the hierarchy of materials in traditional painting.
"It's about turning conventions on their head and playing with the hierarchy of materials in traditional painting."
Not only do you improvise with your surfaces, but you've got these amazing looking painting tools that you make yourself. They look heavy! Is it important that you feel embodied experience when you're making the gestures?
Yeah, I think so. Particularly the most recent oversized brush sculpture is really heavy. I embraced that and it became a really good thing because I had even less control over it. I was just letting it fall and translating that weight into the painting as well.
My painting tool sculptures are again a way of playing with tradition and involving the everyday, using things like dustpans, or cheap car washing sponges and things like that. They can create such magical effects and I never know what they're going to do. And that's all part of the excitement really. I want every painting to be a discovery of some sort.
Could you talk about the site-specific works at Ikon?
This is the first opportunity I've had to engage with the architecture of a space. But I had an interest in how painting might adapt to the space it's in and not just being a thing that's brought in and brought out; the idea that it could exist only there and then is something I find really interesting. Ikon provided the perfect chance to do that – becoming part of the space in the most natural, authentic way, without too much intervention; that's why the replacement of a partition wall with the painting [Boogie Wall] just seemed natural. It's like the space just told me to do that, it was quite an intuitive thing.
And then the gaps in the beams of the archway in the ceiling were just calling out for something to be suspended from them. It was perfect for the swing-like sculpture, to create this sense of a playground. There’s an acrobatic feeling to some of the sculptures as well, because they are using the height of the space; I've never worked with such a tall space either, so it was really exciting to explore that.
Chasing Rainbows explores the theme of impermanence – an idea that freaks me out sometimes!
"each action then is like a new discovery"
Yeah, I don't know – people respond to it very differently. Maybe it's quite frightening for some people, but we almost enjoy things more when they are impermanent - like rainbows, they're always a surprise. Maybe not everyone likes them, but they're generally quite nice if you're just walking along and a rainbow appears that you weren't expecting. Then, if you tried to get up close to it, it wouldn't actually be there. I think that's fascinating: comparing that to the way our thoughts behave. Our thoughts aren't actually physical phenomena, they're not solid or fixed, and when we when we recognise that, we can really let them go. I'm talking a lot of Buddhism!
What do you think the Buddhist take on mark making and impermanence would be? Is there a tension in your work about wanting to let things go but also wanting to leave a trace?
I don't know how long a life a lot of my works have, because they're literally impermanent in some cases, like the sand on the floor that could just be brushed away in an instant and I like it even more for that. But the paintings are also very fragile. I mean, I'm not making work to be some like mega famous artist and leave some big legacy; I would rather have an impact on people now. Because when we experience artwork, we can't stay with it forever anyway. We'll visit the gallery and then we're gone. Often, an artwork is just a mark it leaves on your mind.
By Sammi Gale
Betsy Bradley, Chasing Rainbows is showing at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham until 13 February 2022