WHAT LIES BENEATH
by Peter Bradley Oil on canvas Courtesy of the artist
GALWAY-BASED artist Peter Bradley is “drawn to subjects that challenge societal norms in one way or another”, is “captivated by a rebel”, and is “primarily concerned with challenging people’s perceptions of portraiture and people”.
Sonder, this intriguingly-named portrait of spoken word artist Felicia, whose stage name is Felispeaks and whom he saw perform at K-fest in Killorglin, writes “so passionately about feminism, womanhood, identity and Nigerian culture” that he felt compelled to paint her.
The result — this brilliant portrait, one of 30 shortlisted for this year’s Zurich Portrait Prize.
“Obsessed with gender appropriation since I was a small child, being told that something is ‘for girls’ and ‘not for boys’ has stayed with me my whole life.
“Anyone who operates outside the gender binary is a hero in my eyes.”
As a white, gay man, Bradley couldn’t be more different to Felicia, a black, straight woman and though he has done self-portraits, says, “I find people as different to myself as possible far more interesting” and would “snap up the chance to paint fabulous and iconic Grace Jones or Tilda Swinton”.
Meeting Felicia in Dublin for coffee began the creative process.
“I never have a plan for a painting before meeting a subject. I don’t remember everything we talked about but I remember we laughed a lot.”
First, photographs, then a series of drawings, digital compositions, finally oil paint for its “versatility and vibrancy”.
Recently, Bradley had been heading in a new direction, experimenting with painting with oil on a non-porous surface like perspex and aluminium and “it is blowing my mind”.
In Sonder, Felicia’s gaze and body posture suggest strength and confidence.
The bright, patterned shirt, her choice and Felicia’s glasses, her dark, lustrous skin are beautifully and expertly captured. Bradley deliberately chose shadow-casting white circles on green and purple “because I wanted them to be jarring on the eye”. That they are suffragette colours is “an appropriate coincidence”.
The viewer, says Bradley, “can never fully understand what it is like to identify as a different sex, gender, sexuality, or race, the viewer has to put themselves in the subject’s shoes to understand the image. But you can always be accepting and respectful”.
Believing, with Oscar Wilde, that “A portrait made with feeling tells you as much about the artist as about the sitter”, Bradley says that he is “trying to understand the complexities of human society and figuring out their place in it.”
If his “quietly political” work gets people talking about gender, “a subject I find incredibly important and affects us all, then what’s not political about that?” And the word sonder? “It perfectly describes my current line of research in a ‘ live and let live’ kind of way; it means each random passer-by lives a life as vivid and complex as your own — populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherent craziness, an epic story that continues invisibly around you.”
Your own life and the lives of others are vivid and complex.
An individual, other individuals, and all creating a bigger picture.
www.peter-bradley.com Instagram: @peterbradleyartist Zurich Portrait Prize at the National Gallery of Ireland until January 13.