Betsy Bradley review – a childlike cacophony of colour

Ikon Gallery, Birmingham
Swooping neons, swirling pastels and thick slashes of Yves Klein blue – the 29-year-old artist isn’t trying to teach us about art but experience it

The act of chasing rainbows is a childish one. There’s little time in adulthood to stare wistfully out of the window, wondering what magnificent world exists where those glittering colours touch the ground. Betsy Bradley – the 29-year-old artist from the Midlands who is currently enjoying her first solo exhibition at Ikon Gallery – is on a quest to find out. Or, at least, she’d like us to approach her paintings with the same wide-eyed wonder.

This isn’t hard when you are faced with canvases of swooping neons, swirling pastels and thick slashes of International Klein Blue. Something instinctive happens before a painting of such energy; it is loud, so we are quiet. The worries of the day fizzle away before the cacophony of shades. There is thought behind these splashy paintings – Bradley is informed by Buddhist rainbow theory, arte povera and the ability of certain conditions to arise and disperse out of nowhere – but these ideas aren’t plastered all over the gallery walls. In fact, there isn’t any text in the show at all, not even title cards. Bradley is primarily concerned with the present moment; she’s not trying to teach us about art, but inviting us to experience it.

So, I step into Chasing Rainbows with eyes wide and mind silent. Alongside the dancing canvases, sculptural pieces of translucent material covered in paint drape from the ceiling, cascading into the space like a morning breeze. In the central gallery, a thin sheet of dusty greens, blues and pink is suspended above a box-shaped room with colourful swirls of sand creeping out of the corners. Pausing beneath the fabric, I look up and spot the high ceilings of the gallery just beyond it, and I hide in this alternate reality where the sky is a medley of rolling tones and the ground is a dazzling, dusty palette.

This exhibition encourages many moments of pause. In the first gallery a dividing wall has been removed and replaced by a screen of voile, adorned with thick, lush greens and dashing squiggles of neon orange. Entitled Boogie Wall, it interrupts the cold white walls and passive concrete floors, punctuating the mundanity of the day with a riotous celebration of colour and movement. It also initiates a small, contemplative space at the end of the gallery. There are no windows in here, but the energetic presence of Bradley’s marks creates the sense of looking out across a dazzling summer’s day.

Mimicking the rainbow’s ability to appear and disappear, Bradley’s painting sculptures respond to Ikon’s architecture. In the first gallery a swing hangs from a beam and in the final gallery, a lengthy train of voile hangs from a wooden loop in the ceiling, allowing Bradley’s hectic hues to flood the space. It hangs centrally before a 19th-century neo-gothic window, enabling light to pass through it and generate its own temporary pool of rainbows.

Opposite is an imposing dust sheet canvas that is the same size as the window. Encased by the arched ceiling, the huge work is the crescendo of the exhibition. Blacks, greys, pinks, greens and an intense royal blue fight it out to form an arresting dreamscape that demands attention. Like an stained-glass window in a church, the canvas enforces reverence and stillness. Once I have regained my senses, I slowly approach and clumps of acrylic and brushstrokes become apparent. There is vulnerability in the detail and the tussle between dark shades and bright flashes makes it feel immensely personal, exposing the contradictory ideologies and characteristics present at the heart of each one of us.

Bradley’s artistic process involves a mixture of focused, productive outbursts and slower, thoughtful moments. Using homemade brushes, sponges and other found objects, she only paints “when the energy is right”, perceiving each work as a surprising discovery rather than a pre-planned masterpiece. This organic energy is all over Chasing Rainbows, in every twist of the brush or strike of the paint, but there are times when it is a little muted. The smaller works struggle to embody the same boundless passion – they cannot hold my gaze when I am entranced by a nearby wall of jumping colours. Likewise, a sculpture of two planks of wood holding up a folded dust sheet stuffed in an awkward corner looks like someone forgot to tidy away the remnants of the installation.

Describing herself as a goldfish who will only keep making bigger works if placed in a bigger bowl, Bradley truly shines when casting paint across a large surface area. Put her in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall with a few pots of paint, a warehouse worth of voile and an old sweeping brush, and whatever we find the next day, we won’t be disappointed.

  • Betsy Bradley: Chasing Rainbows is on at the Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, until 13 February.

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