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Artist Whitney Bedford draws on shifting landscapes

Whitney Bedford, whose solo show at Culver City's Susanne Vielmetter opens soon, paints tumultuous landscape scenes that often mirror her changing emotions.

November 10, 2011|By Margaret Wappler, Los Angeles Times
  • Portrait of painter Whitney Bedford outside her Santa Monica studio.
Portrait of painter Whitney Bedford outside her Santa Monica studio. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

Metaphors and visual symbols play a big role in conceptual landscape painter Whitney Bedford's life. Take what happened in 2001. The daughter of an international businessman and a flight attendant, Bedford impulsively jumped on a plane to follow a man she had a crush on to Antarctica. When she arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world and a port to the South Pole, she discovered he wasn't there.

"I was devastated," she said. A master's in fine arts candidate at UCLA at the time, she decided to stay for a couple of weeks and make the best of it. "I took flying lessons and used it as a metaphor for coming back up" from her emotional doldrums.

Now Bedford, 35, works out of photographer Uta Barth's former studio on the grounds of the Santa Monica Airport. But it's not aircraft that Bedford paints as much as shipwrecks, icebergs and lightning strikes, each one an active, often tumultuous, representation of her mood. Icebergs symbolize loneliness; shipwrecks are upheavals in her emotional life. When she paints fireworks, it means she's in love.

A handful of the paintings focusing on lightning and accidents at sea, some as large as 8 feet by 12, will be on display beginning Saturday at Susanne Vielmetter, Bedford's second solo show with the Culver City gallery.

Drawing on her architectural training as an undergrad at Rhode Island School of Design, Bedford thinks of her paintings as grids first. She charts a meticulous seascape and ships with delicate, skeletal sails. But at some point before the painting is finished, she erases part of her work and fills it in with spontaneous, chaotic swoops of paint, a harrowing process that has the ability to make or break the piece.

"Conceptually, the paint is the destroyer," Bedford says, pointing at one of the stormier seascapes. "It sinks the image."

For Susanne Vielmetter, it was Bedford's risky process, as well as her balance of feminine and masculine aesthetics, that made her want to represent the young artist.

"Whitney's paintings don't have a specific feminist agenda," Vielmetter said, "but there's an awareness of historical issues, and a handling of those issues in a highly idiosyncratic way that I like. She's playing with the male history of the ship, typically seen as homage to conquering new frontiers and wartime conflict."

And she's watched Bedford become more ambitious with scale in the last few years, making grander fields for the outbursts and disruptive brush strokes in her paintings.

"Whitney is an inheritor of the gestural brushwork of the abstract expressionists," artist John Baldessari wrote in Art Review in 2005. "She has a unique sense of color . . . I like the heroic romantic aura her work emanates."

Earlier in the year, Bedford traveled to New Zealand, Australia, Beirut and Jordan, among other places, often with friends in the dance-punk collective LCD Soundsystem. When she returned in the summer, she started making the bulk of the work for her new show.

"Travel is how I recharge," Bedford said. "I'm very nomadic that way. It's all about shifting my landscape."

margaret.wappler@latimes.com

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