Think of a thermal imaging camera illuminating areas of high body temperature in a black canvas and you would begin to get a sense of Bradley Theodore’s painting The Last Supper. Indiscernible features, bold tones, and broad strokes delivered in rapid fashion shape this familiar scene of 13 dinners against a wall. The colors clearly missed the memo that three is a crowd and instead seize on Jesus and his disciples.
This demotion of the flesh and individual traits in favor of vivid hues, electrifying energy, and universal skeletal attributes is the mark of Theodore’s style. A native of Turks and Caicos, Theodore taps into his digital advertising and graphic design background to bring forward emotions and memories via the use of color. He is known for his dark-humor portraits of contemporary icons, which are reminiscent of the masks and adornments associated with Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead).
A selection of about 20 of his works is the latest in a string of colorful exhibitions taking Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens by storm. On view through June 30, Bradley Theodore in the Garden of the Palms feels fresh, unpretentious, and positive despite carrying undertones of darkness and mortality. The show features acrylic and oil portraits of pop culture and fashion personalities such as Karl Lagerfeld, Carolina Herrera, and Iris Apfel, along with works the artist produced while in residence at Ann Norton’s Studio. Even his skull sculptures, the largest of which appear in the garden facing each other, are evocative of celebration, with bright colors and impeccable lapels balancing up their macabre appearance.
Colorful patches, fashionable shades, and a bright white ponytail masterfully conceal that morbid appearance in Karl in Oil – but it can only do so for so long. Stare a little longer and notice how the peachy skin erodes in certain spots, giving in to a bony semblance. This is not, however, an invitation to mourn the loss of the legendary German fashion designer, but a resurrection of his inner beauty and sartorial elegance. The piece, done a year before Lagerfeld’s death, can be found in Ann Norton’s Studio.
Inside the galleries, a feminine deity radiating patience and humility holds her palms together in a prayer gesture. She floats on a bed of flowers including roses and lilies. Her features are childish and primitive, and her blond locks of hair messy. The brushstrokes accentuate her spine and rib cage and seem more preoccupied with her bone structure than with grace. The lively blue drapery hugging her pink robe is a clue. This is none other than Virgin Mary. The familiar pose and hues allude to her traditional depiction, but the saturation and the setting have been dialed up. The result is an apparition that is more clownish than divine, which is to say more human, less fear-inspiring.
The adjacent room houses a painting of a Victorian ball gown oscillating between pastel and cobalt blues and with the consistency of cake frosting. Its opulence reminds us of a charismatic character who lacked empathy and tact. Visually, it’s playful, innocent and doesn’t offend the eyes. As evidence of an oblivious royal removed from reality, it’s lethal. This would be Exhibit A in Marie Antoinette’s trial. The jeweled queen, plastered with makeup, stands passively as if resigned to face the viewers’ judgment, but the ridiculous extravagance with which she is captured is punishment enough. Theodore gives this 2022 portrait of the notorious character a casual title, Marie.
The multidisciplinary artist, who is based in New York City and has collaborated with Puma, Lego, and Google (among other companies), revisits the young French queen in My Love (2021). This time she appears riding a horse dressed in a mint-green gown while her towering white wig remains intact. The cobalt clue background showered with warm flowers makes for a romantic vintage postcard. The bright palette assign to the animal highlights its musculature. It’s as Theodore were identifying each of its organs and mapping its blood circulation. In that sense, the piece feels a tad anatomical.
The amusing works featured in Bradley Theodore in the Garden of the Palms are not to be taken too seriously. The lighthearted approach to a heavy topic such as mortality seems unorthodox but should hardly come as a surprise. Each person’s relationship with death is personal and Theodore clearly treats his as a life partnership and collaboration. He is simply the latest messenger to remind us Death is the greatest joke of all.
If you go
Bradley Theodore in the Garden of the Palms runs through June 30 at the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens. Hours: Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission: Members free, adults, $15; seniors, $10; children/student, $7. 253 Barcelona Road, West Palm Beach. 561-832-5328. Info@ansg.org.