In the Studios: Paige Bradley
Paige Bradley breaks all the rules in her practice as a professional sculptor. She does not conform to the dictates or decorum of figuration past nor does she leave a path of predictability behind as she blazes a trail forward. And just as there are no rules in Bradley’s studio, there are also no limitations. Any number of poses, media and messages may find expression through her expansive output: Some of her sculptures sit strong and grounded in outdoor spaces; others float delicately in multi-figure aerial compositions; others are sturdily wrapped in silk while stretching toward freedom. Although usually cast in bronze, Bradley’s sculptures can be made from iron-bonded resin, aluminum, faux glass or any other material she feels helps tell the story. Many of her pieces incorporate elements of the contemporary, resembling the type of multi-media installations one might find at an art fair in Europe, while others look as if they just walked out of a nineteenth-century European academy.
While living in London for eight years, Bradley drew inspiration from the “underground” art scene and found herself rubbing elbows with celebrity artists, critics and collectors from the contemporary-art circle. Bradley embraces contemporary art while holding onto her foundational representational training. At the same time, she has worked hard to push past preconceived notions of how figurative sculpture should be created and presented. She believes that her work is contemporary for all the same reasons as “contemporary” artists, but she refuses to refute the power of speaking in a universally understood skill-based language.
The figures in Bradley’s work consistently are those with depth, strength and a story to tell. She chooses models with “truth on their skin,” and begins a project by letting the subject determine the pace and direction of the process. All of her pieces are centered around the emotions associated with the human experience. And just as the human experience ebbs and flows in multifaceted directions throughout one’s life, so too do Bradley’s sculptures encompass the full spectrum of what it means to be alive: the joy and the sorrow, the beauty and the ugliness, the beginning and the end.
In 2015, Bradley returned to her home shores and is now making her studio in Stamford, Connecticut with her husband and two children. This Q+A takes a peek inside the studio and mind of this internationally collected and prolific artist, whose thoughts are every bit as fast-moving and unpredictable as her powerful work.
AM: You recently moved back to the States after eight years in London. What initially inspired your relocation to London, and what prompted your return?
PB: Prior to living in London, I had lived in New York City for two years, and that is where I met my husband. He worked in international banking, and we moved to London when he was transferred in 2007. Living there was greatly beneficial both personally and professionally. I was able to gain more of an international presence and show my work not only in London but also in Singapore, China and Vienna. We moved back to the States because we decided it was time to return to our American roots. Our children were starting public school, and I wanted to move into a house. Now that we have a ‘home,’ I am truly enjoying having my art in my living space for the first time.
AM: How would you compare the art scene (dealers, galleries/museums, the health of the art market, art critics/writers) in London to that in New York City? Do you think there are more or less opportunities for an artist in the States?
PB: That is a great question. I would say they are about on par, although quite different. New York City likes to surround people with its art. (Think Swoon, Shepard Fairey, Keith Haring, Basquiat). The New York City contemporary art scene is just as easily found on subway walls as it is on the walls of the MoMA. New Yorkers make it convenient to attend art openings, as they are usually in the same area or buildings and on the same day. Young collectors’ groups are coveted and expensive to join, but also rewarding. I still find, however, that the majority of New Yorkers think art is “not for them” and reserved for the educated and wealthy elite. As an artist, New York has a vibe and energy that can push you to your limits. It’s a tough but creative spot. Sales are good, but shows are harder to come by than in London because in New York City the curator is king.
Londoners live with older art, and older stories, so there are many more layers. If you want to do gallery night in London, it’s like an underground scavenger hunt. Although it’s both fun and frustrating, it can also be rewarding when you end up at that opening or party with all the big-name artists, including such YBAs [Young British Artists] as Tracey Emin, Rachel Whiteread, Grayson Perry or Banksy. I have found myself in all manner of circumstances in the London art world: sitting at a Christie’s auction and bidding on a Damien Hirst; visiting a bronze foundry with the Queen; in a dungeon with Tracy Emin. That would never happen in New York City. The London art world is a little more inviting and less intimidating than the contemporary art world in New York City. Another important distinction: London museums are free. It makes it much easier to walk in on a whim—and everyone does.
I would add that there is also an element of approachability between artists and art professionals in London. I have had the pleasure of getting to know two wonderful art writers, Tom Flynn and Edward Lucie-Smith, who have both been approachable even though they are quite accomplished. I also want to note that the owner of a prominent gallery not only stopped what he was doing and sat down with me in his office to look at my portfolio but also did a show with one of his artists where he cast a bronze in the street in the front of the gallery. I don’t think this would have happened in New York City.
AM: You have trained at a number of schools, including Pepperdine University, The Florence Academy of Art and The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. How important was that traditional foundation for the work you do now, which carries elements of both classicism and the contemporary?
PB: I always tell people to start with the foundational elements. I really believe it’s a necessity if you want to make something from nothing. You have to be a master of material, light, anatomy, form, concept, composition, etc. But in the end, technique must burn. It needs to lay there dormant, unused but understood. Something else must take over. That “something” can’t be taught; it must be felt. And with practice that energy can grow very strong. I didn’t learn those things in school.
AM: You had said in past interviews that you do not want your work labeled “classical,” even though you are working in the figurative genre. How would you describe the style you are working in?
PB: Someone recently called me a Neo-Classicist. I found myself researching Classical Realism, Kitsch, figuration, etc., but I don’t fit in with any of these either. The main problem is that today’s artists don’t group themselves together. We are isolated individuals. We are not like Van Gogh and Gauguin, not like Monet and Renoir, not like Schiele and Klimt. We don’t go to the coffee shops and talk art for hours. We don’t share models and studios or gallerists and exhibition space. It’s quite lonely, as we are riding our own waves. The only benefit is we cannot be labeled. Although I feel good about this, I would love to hang out with a group of artists and regularly critique one another. Yet the new millennials are already overwhelmed and distracted; there truly is no time to cultivate relationships the way humanity used to. My private studio space, where I can think and create, is therefore golden. Although nothing replaces human relationships, my work gives me that ability to communicate. And it is this work that I give to the world. And they can label it whatever they like.
AM: Do you ever find it difficult to balance or synchronize the physical/technical aspects of sculpting while conveying the story/message?
PB: If a title doesn’t immediately surface as I am finding the form, then it’s not a form of truth. It’s just pretty. And then it usually doesn’t see the light of day. Only when it screams its title to me do I really know the work. My sculpting method is quite fervent and exciting and often things are flying around in my studio! It’s a great feeling to create a full twenty-inch sculpture in three hours because it’s honest, and the energy still exists on the surface.
AM: After years in New York City and London, how are you enjoying your new studio in Stamford? Is Connecticut a place conducive to creating the kind of work you do?
PB: Yes, its perfect to be in Stamford. As an artist grows, his or her story becomes something more internal, and that is plenty. When I was younger, I needed to be in the center of the energy to challenge and push myself. I am now only an hour from New York City, but I am far enough away that I can hear my own voice. I have plenty to say and file cabinets full of ideas. Creativity is a muscle, and the more I use it, the more I understand the things I need to say. I hope I live to 96, rushing to the end to finish it all (like Michelangelo).
AM: I know that you often work in series, and have had such themes in the past as “Liberation,” “Metamorphosis,” “Seasons” and “Fragments.” What ideas and potential series are you working on now?
PB: “Human Compassion” is the series I am working on now. Have you ever come to a stop light and had a beat-up, rusty car pull up next to you? What if the driver was an aging woman dressed like a community worker? Perhaps a nurse at a homeless shelter? And she is tired and worn. She is trying to figure out how she can finish all her important work, go grocery shopping, pick up her kids from middle school and get dinner on the table on time. I want to roll down my window and shout, “Hello beautiful! Thank you for being here!” But I think she would think I was strange—so I save it for my work.
AM: The women in your sculpture seem to be consistently strong, confident and empowered. Are there any female figures or characters (historical, fabled, in your family or life) that you looked up to as a child or currently look up to as role models?
PB: I have always loved a strong but fallible woman character, whether it’s a superhero, a girlfriend or a mom. My mother is in her mid-70s, and she does yoga every morning. She is currently camping alone in the Sierras, studying butterflies. She is engaged with our family, but not at the expense of her own experiences, even now. Old age doesn’t mean she slows down. And I have that kind of role model to follow.
AM: Because so many of your sculptures are in dynamic positions of flight or freedom, do you enjoy seeing them installed in outdoor/expansive settings? Does it feel like a more natural setting for their stories?
PB: Sure, I love outdoor settings. But I find indoor can be just as beautiful. Sometimes space is not acknowledged until an object (a sculpture, a fruit bowl, a vase of flowers) is placed, and then space (SPACE!) is discovered, thanks to the object it captures. Without form, space ceases to become important. Without space, form ceases to be. They are married and attached for eternity.
I just try to push the boundaries of sculpture. I like to attempt to do something that hasn’t been done before. So you say sculpture is opaque? I will make it transparent. You say sculpture is heavy? I will hang it. You say it’s dull? I will make it brilliant. You say its stagnant? I will make it move. That’s just me. I like to rebel against the classics while admiring their skill. I am a conundrum in that respect, to be sure. I am not a purist, and I am not completely contemporary either, as I believe I need to speak a language everyone can understand, not just the curators. So in that respect, I don’t fit in. But that is my freedom. And maybe all my work is just a series of self-portraits.
AM: Of the sculptures you have created in the last five or so years, which do you feel most connected to right now, and why?
PB: For some reason, I am thinking a lot about the first bronze I ever created. It’s called Empathy, and she is reaching forward to the world and giving it a hand up. It fits with what I am working on now. There are no photographs of it, and my father has the only copy, which is perfectly appropriate. That said, my favorite piece is the one I haven’t made yet.
AM: Who are some past and present artists you admire and respect?
PB: Bill Viola is my favorite artist. I love him. For street art, I like Swoon a lot. For sculpture, Antony Gormley, Christian Zucconi, Juan Muñoz and Sean Henry are doing interesting work. For painting I like Jenny Saville. And for contemporary, my hat is off to Ai Weiwei for making us ask the hard questions.
AM: What do you think your purpose is as an artist?
PB: To be honest about the human condition and speak about it directly through my art. To make stuff with my small bare hands, and to not think any better about myself because I do. To just live and observe. To let myself be led by the universe and chance. To bounce around. To love, to cry, to listen, to feel, to help, to hug and to trust. To find my own truth and not be embarrassed to share it with the world.
All photography this article Rick Pharaoh unless otherwise indicated.