Ana Benaroya and Katherine Bradford on the endless possibility of female figuration

Before her next solo show at Art Basel Hong Kong, Benaroya chats weaponized lactation and success in the art world with her mentor

Ana Benaroya and Katherine Bradford are painters who like to have fun, in the purest, most childlike definition of the word. Their practice is one of playing pretend, of requiring our willing suspension of disbelief. They’re committed to weaving endless possibilities of character, geography, and fiction into persuasively coherent painted worlds, which are strengthened by both their command of the medium and the authenticity of their lived experience. These fictional settings are real if they say so.

Benaroya’s women have the physiques of superhumans or bodybuilders on steroids, each hunkier and zanier than the next. They call on the equally psychosexual and satirical absurdity of comic books, and artists like Peter Saul and Carroll Dunham. Their muscles are so pumped they could burst, their complexions steeped in retina-searing synthetic reds and toxic greens. A burning cigarette sits perpetually poised at the corner of their mouths. Still, an undercurrent of pageantry runs through Benaroya’s paintings. For one, her figures boast hair that stays blowing in the tornado of some industrial fan concealed from our sight. What else of their off-kilter glamor stems from ideas of beauty, or the lack thereof, that we prescribe to women and femininity. Benaroya’s behemoths would stomp all over that.

The figures in Bradford’s paintings boast a defiance less brash but equally forceful; they’ve shrugged off such earthly notions as beauty and ugliness. Floating free, they exist in suspended states of melancholy, bathing in oceans of fuzzy abstraction. A buildup of loosely defined, thinly painted strokes shape their bodies. The Milky Way bounds their humble abode. Around them, yellow suggestions of stars, together with gas and dust, hover above ponds of deep blues and purples, as if a swimming pool had spilled over and engulfed Earth. The people look a smidge lonesome in all that liquid. But solitude and liberation are perhaps not mutually exclusive. In a small way, this flustering tension is a symptom of our exceedingly isolating modern life.

Anticipating a solo presentation of her for at Art Basel Hong Kong in March, Benaroya sits down with Bradford, a mentor from her days at Yale, delving into the concepts of childhood, vulnerability, weaponized lactation, and success in the art world.

Katherine Bradford: Five years ago. When you were a graduate student at Yale, I came to your studio.

Ana: I remember I was very excited to have you come by.

Katherine: What did I say?

Ana: I think you were interested in the nipples of the figures I painted.

Katherine: And I’m still interested, so I’m glad you’ve kept them. Who isn’t interested in those nipples?

Ana: [Laughs]

Katherine: Come on! It’s a big breakthrough. I think when you posted your work [online], I immediately came out and said, My God. The way you’re painting women’s bodies—it’s so forthright, it’s so erotic.

Ana: As a little kid, I rarely saw images of women that I could identify [with], or read stories that I found compelling in a way that I was like, Oh yeah, that could be me when I grow up.

Katherine: Where did you grow up?

Ana: East Brunswick, New Jersey. I was a tomboy. I really liked superhero comics and action figures.

Katherine: Do you think your work comes from that?

Ana: I think my obsession with muscles does. I’ve always wondered what it feels like to be so big and powerful.

Katherine: How tall are you?

Ana: 5′ 6″. I’m average height.

Katherine: When I met you, I was sort of smiling to myself because you were not like your women.

Ana: I wish I could be one of them.

Katherine: Tell me why!

Ana: I mean, don’t you want to move through the world in a different way? Don’t you wish that you could be any color of the rainbow and have that many muscles? Or have ginormous boobs that were powerful? Don’t you wish that you could exist in your body in a way where you didn’t feel embarrassed or shameful?

Katherine: You know, I [paint] a lot of women floating and flying, and I think that’s a state that I would wish for myself and for a lot of people.

Ana: A state without gravity?

Katherine: Well, I keep doing paintings of women flying away from houses, as if they’d freed themselves from running a household. That fantasy keeps coming into my work.

Ana: So like escaping some kind of domestic existence?

Katherine: Yes—which actually, I did. See, you could become all muscley with huge tits!

Ana: I could! If I really wanted to, I could. [Laughs]

Katherine: If you keep painting the way you are, it’ll come true!

“A contemporary artist is not valuable because they make people feel comfortable. They are valuable because they make people rethink things, and that’s something I’ve had to get used to.”

Ana: Do you see yourself in any of [your figures]?

Katherine: No, but people ask me that a lot. I’ve become kind of self-conscious about that, thinking perhaps I am painting self-portraits. But I’m not consciously painting [myself].

Ana: Yeah, it doesn’t seem like that to me. I think people ask that question a lot of all artists. I get the question [of whether] my paintings are autobiographical, which is really funny.

Katherine: But I think you’ve answered that beautifully, to say that you wouldn’t mind becoming one of those women.

Ana: I don’t think there’s any danger of that. [Laughs]

Katherine: Because what I was getting at is the powerful women we know now don’t always look like that.

Ana: No, I guess to me the muscles also represent something beyond just physical strength. I’m interested in finding my relationship to being masculine and being feminine through these figures I make. I’ve always been intrigued by how women present themselves, or how they’re made to present themselves in these very sexualized ways. I think that’s why I paint the figures I paint. I’m trying to sort out my own relationship to those things.

Katherine: That’s terrific because painting is very helpful that way, and it’ll keep you painting. Because you know what? You’re not going to sort it out.

Ana: Probably not. I’m sure I’ll keep changing too, as I figure things out.

Katherine: I think the people that I’m painting, now that you have made me think about that a little, might be my mother and her friends, who were wonderful people. I grew up in Connecticut in a very nice town. Almost too nice. And that was the way to be—make people feel comfortable. I find that at odds with the art world. A contemporary artist is not valuable because they make people feel comfortable. They are valuable because they make people rethink things, and that’s something I’ve had to get used to. I think the reason I put my women in bathing suits is so that I won’t upset anything.

Ana: Are you nervous to paint nipples yourself?

Katherine: Totally! I haven’t really done what you have, which is to invent a way to do a nipple. I think that’s important. You got in close.

Ana: But I think you do something else that’s important. I’ve always felt from your paintings a really intense sense of warmth and comfort. The more I think about it, actually, in some ways I would rather live in the world of your paintings, because it feels warm, like a place where everyone loves each other and exists peacefully. The figures you paint feel very tender.

Katherine: See, all those things you’re saying are perhaps the positive side of the world I grew up in and knew. Not a world that I want to exist, but a world I’m familiar with. Two things that I find interesting to paint are intimacy and vulnerability. I think they can be examined endlessly. The funny thing is, your women don’t feel that vulnerable. You’re not letting us feel sorry for them at all!

Ana: I think you’re right. Obviously, I have a different relationship to them than someone who didn’t make the painting. I guess I feel that way all the time in my life—vulnerable, unsure. I want to project or feel a different way when I paint.

Katherine: Has any of that changed?

Ana: I don’t think it’s changed. I just think I keep trying to get better at what I’m doing, in my own way.

Katherine: I can relate to that. No matter how many paintings people buy or how many shows you’re in, the reason why we keep painting is because we haven’t done the painting—the great painting—yet.

Ana: They give me the strength to keep doing it.

Katherine: They being the women [you paint]?

Ana: Yeah. When I come into my studio, I’m coming back to spend time with them. I know they’re not people, and I know they don’t talk to me, but…

Katherine: Oh, I think they probably do talk to you.

Ana: In my head, yeah.

Katherine: Well, you know what happens when I paint? Sometimes I paint a woman standing in a bathing suit at a beach and I recognize her. I know who she is, I grew up with her, she’s a nice person, and she feels a little self-conscious being so partially clothed.

Ana: I think my paintings are both a response to my own life experiences and how I see myself, but also how I feel about living in the world. I only depicted men until a few years before grad school. I thought, Well, if I can depict all these muscular men in a way that makes fun of them or emasculates them, takes away some of their power, that’s funny. But I realized there’s a dead end to that road, and it comes pretty quickly. Then I felt I had to start looking at myself. I needed to tell my own story. It started with the muscles and…

Katherine: The breasts! And the nipples!

Ana: This is not really related to painting at all, but one thing I’ve always thought would be fun is if women could shoot toxic milk out of their nipples. On command. Like a weapon.

Katherine: I did a pink painting in which there’s a naked woman, and her breasts are pointing down, and there’s milk coming out of them. She’s not exactly shooting it, but that’s a great idea for a painting!

Ana: I should do that. Wouldn’t it be great if women could have that? Like a built-in defense system?

“I’ve said that it was harder for me to come out as an artist than to come out as a lesbian. I had to be very quiet about it and very patient.”

Katherine: I had twins, and I breastfed them, and that was so different from shooting milk out.

Ana: No… this is just a fantasy of mine. [Laughs]

Katherine: It’s a good one! So you graduated from Yale and swung right into being in a gallery and shows.

Ana: I had a show at Richard Heller Gallery in LA within the year I graduated, and then I was able to get another show after that, and just kept doing it. How did you start showing? You always painted, right?

Katherine: No, you don’t know my back story?

Ana: I know that you had a family and left your husband, I’m assuming?

Katherine: Well, people think I left my husband. In many ways, you could say he left me because he didn’t want a wife who was an artist. He had an ambitious career, and he wanted a wife who would be a helpmate to him, so I had to live through all that. It wasn’t until I was about 30 that I said to myself I wanted to be an artist. I had to slowly change my life around, and my parents were very unsupportive, as was everyone around me! I’ve said that it was harder for me to come out as an artist than to come out as a lesbian. I had to be very quiet about it and very patient.

Ana: When do you think you felt people accepted that about you?

Katherine: Last year. [Laughs] I still feel like I’m trying to join the club. Get a membership card. I don’t really believe in some of the things people say to me about success. I think, Oh, you don’t know what you’re talking about, but that’s okay.

Ana: What do you mean in terms of ‘success’?

Katherine: People who don’t know me very well will say, Oh, you’re a big deal, and I know that isn’t true. The art world is huge. It has quite a hierarchy.

Ana: So like what would…

Katherine: Convince me? Nothing. When I moved to New York from Maine, I got a studio in Brooklyn, where I met quite a few artists, and we were all yearning to be a part of the art world. Once we were talking about how we would know that we had made it. Someone said, ‘Oh, if you had one of your paintings on the cover of Artforum,’ which really dates us, because that’s not such a big thing now. Then Chris Martin said, ‘I think it’s when you’re in a restaurant and you do a little drawing on a napkin and it pays for the meal.’

Ana: Don’t you think most artists probably feel like they’re never…

Katherine: As good as they want to be?

Ana: Yeah, satisfied. I definitely feel moments of being proud of my work. But I’ll always hope for more people to see it. It’s my dream to have a show at the Met when I turn 69.

Katherine: That’s pretty precise.

Ana: I feel like that’s a good age.

Katherine: You know, things could change so much that having a show at the Met would mean something different.

Ana: It’s my favorite museum. I would always go there with my mom. That was our spot where we could connect with each other. What kept you going?

Katherine: You know what kept me going? I just want to do something good. I like coming to my studio and making things.

Ana: Do you come every day?

Katherine: Well, now I do, because I don’t have to teach, and my kids are old. It’s great. I hope you get there. At 69. [Laughs]