Terry Bradley

High-profile Belfast artist's Eakin Gallery exhibition brings more distinctive portraits to the public, but is his idea of beauty more than skin-deep?

Belfast artist Terry Bradley is known for his boisterous paintings of moody, pouty women with demonically hypnotic, come-to-bed eyes and cheekbones to seat six. His paintings are like racy street art or raunchy graffiti – showgirls, burlesque dancers and models with pneumatic curvature are joined by muscular, tattooed men with all-American jawlines and jaunty peak caps.

As Bradley's current Eakin Gallery exhibition shows, the ‘look’ he paints again and again is unapologetically samey. There is only one kind of woman worth putting paint on canvas for and she had better be smoking hot, almost to the point of caricature, like Angelina Jolie crossed with Jessica Rabbit in some Moulin Rouge underworld where the scantest of clothing is required.

Bradley’s work is unabashedly about the male gaze sizing up the right kind of perfect-ten sweetheart. It isn’t about solemn reverence for the dazzling enigma of a beautiful woman, like Da Vinci’s rendering of Mona Lisa. Bradley’s paintings are more to do with that semi-drunken moment in a bar when a guy spots a High Street honey and decides, with an annoyingly smug grin, that he will most definitely take her home.

There's an occasional break from seductive women, with sailor-town dockers painted with pipes like extras from gangster comic strips, or watered-down wrestlers with tattoos saying ‘HONOUR’ or ‘Mum & Dad’. The Eakin Gallery selection includes a menacing painting of a bunch of shifty, tight-faced men called 'The Heart of Belfast'. The man in the foreground clutches a mallet, with ‘HURT’ and ‘PAIN’ tattooed on his knuckles. There is some effort at a subtext here but overall the effect is lacklustre, another shallow attempt to summarise Belfast’s fractious history in the tired language of cliché.

Elsewhere, 'Love Heart', 'New York Doll', 'Rose' and 'Blue' are perhaps the finer moments of Bradley’s painterly obsession with the pouting siren. There are softer pastel and watercolour sketches of models that show a brief departure from his usual brash palette, but it isn’t enough of a progression to suggest that Bradley’s art has moved on or matured since he first appeared on the Northern Irish art scene.

This is art that concentrates on surface appearances. It might be sexy, but it is as superficial as a fashion blurb. There is no bite or mystery. We aren’t given any indications of depth or personality; the women Bradley paints don’t seem to be there to do anything other than titillate or make the wall in your living room prettier. Their eyes are as blank as Stepford wives and their faces remain as emotionless as cattle. Where’s the soul or heart in this aesthetic?

People ostensibly want to buy this kind of ‘cool’ commercial art for their walls. There isn’t a market in Ulster for Caravaggio-type renderings of religious scenes, Etruscan pottery or far-out triptychs of gargoyles. Art is bought for homes or offices to add colour and easy chic. It needn’t be deep. What’s required is generally pleasant, functional wall candy. Whether this qualifies as art or not is an academic question. It’s a question that certainly needn’t bother Bradley, whose canvases sell for thousands.

The self-taught artist and former model admitted to the Belfast Telegraph to having no knowledge of other artists or art history. He began painting 14 years ago while working the nightclub scene in Dublin. Since then he’s enjoyed the kind of commercial success most artists can only dream of while living in turpentine-scented garrets.

But, lets face it, people might buy these paintings to hang on their walls, but will the images be remembered in 50, 80, or 100 years time? Will Bradley go down in the annals of Northern Irish art history as an innovator or genius of modern art? Just imagine how Brian Sewell would answer this question.

Bradley is a successful creator of sexy, disposable imagery that makes for popular prints and interior decoration. But there’s nothing to brood over in these paintings, no signs of complex thought or emotion, no spiritual struggles, no grand epiphanies. Bradley’s work may be beautiful but it has nothing to say. It is the artistic equivalent of a one night stand.

Joanne Savage

Terry Bradley 2009 runs at the Eakin Gallery, 237 Lisburn Road, until Saturday November 21. Check out the Culture Live! listings for full info and booking.