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Bradley Theodore shares his interpretation of his latest exhibition at Ann Norton Sculpture Garden

Bradley talking
Wilkine Brutus
Before speaking with WLRN, multidisciplinary artist Bradley Theodore shared an interpretation of his own work with a small cadre of art lovers who attended an artist talk at the Ann Norton Sculpture Garden in West Palm Beach.

You may remember Bradley Theodore’s skeletal portraits of fashion icons like Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld. Or maybe you saw his solo exhibition in London or a large-scale mural in Tokyo.

Art aficionados often describe his work as Jean-Michel Basquiat meets Banksy. And as an artist in residence at the Ann Norton Sculpture Garden, Theodore is exhibiting classic works and portraits of Palm Beach residents he painted on-site, from fashion icon Iris Apfel to philanthropist Frances Fisher.

“Artists are historians of culture and society,” said Theodore. “So doing these portrait series at the Ann Norton Sculpture Garden has allowed me to see how a painting could impact a person’s life, impact their mood, and how it could get the community to gather around something.”

Theodore, who was born in Turks and Caicos and lives in Miami and New York City, says the vibrant colors in his paintings come from Turks and Caicos — it’s a call to the environment itself, the “blue, turquoise, red, really beautiful purple flowers.”

His lectures for children at the Ann Norton draws on his experience as a self-taught painter, weaving through the structure and principles of painting and the wild creativity it takes to make a piece of art your own.

“A lot of the lectures I do, I show them how math is actually a part of art, which is a part of society, and I gear it toward how you put things together to make something else,” said Theodore. “You don’t need to have much, but whatever you have, you can combine it with something else and make something better.”

Theodore’s vibrant, iconoclastic paintings, sculptures and artist talks are at the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens through June 30.

Theodore graduated from the School of Visual Arts New York City. He says right after the 2008 financial crisis, between 2010-11, he decided to pivot from digital art and design to “move more into this organic existence.”

He didn't know what he was getting himself into. He spent every day for two straight years, from sunup to sundown, studying documentaries on successful artists and practicing paint stroking techniques on YouTube. The pivot to painting was a one way to find himself during the darkest moments of his life. Theodore says “Earth is a living creature” and “paint itself, as an object, is alive.”

"And we're part of its ecosystem. Oil painting is useful petroleum, which is part of the Earth's blood,” said Theodore. "You're using petroleum-based or plant-based, and all with pigments, which are rocks, minerals, plants, et cetera.”

He says painting is one of the hardest sectors of art because the process of painting isn’t always consistent. The paint may dry faster or may not dry fast enough. He calls it an unforgiving medium. “So it's kind of like cooking, you know, there's a recipe,” said Theodore. “But if your environment changes and your ingredients are always changing, there is no recipe.”

Theodore, who often uses black canvases, says painting required him to find out what is in his soul, “from the darkest dark to the lightest light.” He says a lot of painters break, but he was just lucky that painting helped him put himself back together.

Even the black canvas is a kind of revolt, a challenge against the norm. He said the color has always had a negative connotation in American society. “Black cat.” “Blacklisted.” “Black people.”

Ann and Karl photo shot by Wilkine Brutus.jpg
Wilkine Brutus
Ann Norton Sculpture Garden in West Palm Beach: Multidisciplinary artist Bradley Theodore presents his sculpture version of his famous portraits of fashion icons Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld.

On the canvas, when you thrust paint in the middle of black space, “you're trying to find some light,” said Theordore. “And all of a sudden, I just saw the light was everywhere.”

Theodore describes his work as a “reflection” of his own history as an artist, a person, and the places he’s been and the cultures he’s experienced. The stroll through museums in Paris. The stroll through the streets of New York. And through skeletal paintings of well-known people, Theodore exposes how life and death interact with celebrity culture and fashion. And he weaves social commentary with each stroke.

He’s intrigued by skeletons because everyone, regardless of social status, are “all the same inside.” He uses skeletons in his work to “equalize our society and bring everyone back to reality.”

“I feel they're just kind of like a window, a kind of a gateway to the soul,” said Theodore. “You've heard about people with ghost limbs, where they've lost their hand or leg, but they can still feel it, you know, and it's kind of like the soul's wrapped around that body part, that shape.

“That is still a part of us as being human and it equalizes everyone.”

Art critics and fans have described Theodore’s work as “Banksy meets Basquiat.” Jean-Michel Basquiat is an American artist of Haitian and Puerto-Rican descent who rose to fame in the 1980s. Theodore understands the aesthetic comparison, saying “Basquiat has been a symbol for an outsider. The outsiders of art.

“So my work itself has a little bit of that foundation in it. It is Caribbean. It is tribal. But it changes because my history is a little different,” said Theodore. “I spent time in Asia and Japan and Europe… Italy, France. I lived in France for years. So a lot of the symbolism, a lot of the objects [that] are in my paintings are objects that are in my history.”

Theodore says people recognize the similarities and differences, its “rawness” and how it is not a repurposed version. Theodore isn’t a fan of how many artists and companies have overly-commercialized Basquit’s work. He says people have plagiarized his work, took “his crown symbol and put it on everything from coffee mugs to chicken boxes.” He understood the similarities to Banksy as well, who he met once in the Lower East Side in New York. “And then the Banksy part is because I'm doing kind of modern subject matters… doing Anna Wintour or Karl Lagerfeld, or Iris Apfel,” said Theodore. “But also playing with that fashion, religion, iconography.”

Visitors at his gallery exhibition will also notice a large painting of colorful horses grazing in a field, hanging directly across from his skeletal painting of the Last Supper. Theodore’s keen observation of society extends beyond the human condition. Years ago, he had stumbled on a book in Milian, Italy, that explored the role horses have played in war, in battles between tribes in Europe and the Middle East, for example.

He said he was mesmerized by how important horses have been for human ingenuity. And after attending a few polo matches in Wellington, the village about 30 minutes west of the Ann Norton, Theodore said he was surprised to see that horses were still part of people's everyday lives.

People also gather around the exhibition to listen to the interpretation of his own work. It’s a moment to compare their thoughts with his, and establish the type of connection he yearns for from his paintings.

“It's humbling,” said Theodore. “In a way, I feel that every time I meet someone who likes my work or I have to give them my time so they can, you know, understand me and my work, I just make sure that I pay them respect for the time that they've given me. I’m honored.”