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LOS ANGELES — Living in Los Angeles, I regard water in practical terms. I use it cautiously, and in winter I hope for rain. Katherine Bradford and Jen DeNike remind me how much more there is to water in their gem-like show Being Like Water at AE2, Anat Ebgi’s ancillary gallery space.
Bradford is a bewitching painter, masterfully achieving luminosity through color relationships rather than the illusionistic use of light and shadow. In “Swimming Under Planets” (2017), a thin veil of green, yellow, and rose washes turn patches of white paint into gleaming celestial bodies suspended in a brushy sky of luminous violet and midnight blue, while in “Glass Ceiling” (2017), white shapes edged with slightly acidic, butter yellow become incandescent bras.
“Glass Ceiling” is at once overtly political and weirdly ambiguous. A figure of unspecified gender gazes out at a dark ocean upon which floats an armada of white bras, each as radiant as a lighthouse beacon. The canvas’s top margin is blotchy gray, a cloudy sky evoking the oppressive force of the painting’s title. A second, larger figure is barely visible, present mainly through its white hair and a dim outline against the surrounding night. The picture is a reverie before the sublime but also a massing of female power. Bradford’s image is altogether of this moment, digesting the professional barriers still faced by women in all fields, not least in the fine arts.
In this context, her remaining three paintings on adjacent walls, all of swimmers, take on meanings that had not occurred to me before in Bradford’s long involvement with this subject. The swimmers in this exhibition, all women, seem to be enjoying a moment of self-possession in the water’s embrace. Recumbent, they extend across the entire width of the canvas, the twilight ocean a shelter from the inevitable confrontations of daytime.
Jen DeNike’s “Queen of Narwhals” (2018), a 10-minute, three-channel video installation, is enveloped by walls painted a saturated blue, strengthening the sense of immersion. Like Bradford’s paintings, the video is populated entirely by women, but here they appear to be shapeshifters, devotees of a shamanistic cult of the sea. The color is rich, as is the sound (by Scott Haggart), and the slow pacing conjures the feeling of a séance. The core of the narrative concerns a young woman who has her tarot read, enters a bathtub, and through the remote magic of an elder is transformed into a narwhal at sea, recalling Irish myths of the selkie, a creature capable of morphing from seal to human (this association is strengthened by a Gaelic song in the soundtrack). The work is enchanting, but ends with a disappointingly crude CGI narwhal swimming a bit too stiffly — a letdown after the drenching beauty up to that point.
Bradford and DeNike turn away from art’s traditional treatment of (mostly female) bathers as objects of delectation, whether idealized, romanticized, abstracted, or portrayed with intimate realism. Bradford’s and DeNike’s women are close cousins whose relationship with water goes well beyond the pragmatic or recreational. Seawater, for these artists, becomes a mysterious source of power, earth’s amniotic fluid.
Jen DeNike and Katherine Bradford: Being Like Water continues at AE2, Anat Ebgi (2680 S La Cienega Blvd, Los Angeles) through March 10.