Painting friends in mid-conversation, Alex Bradley Cohen hides as much as he reveals

The Chicago-based artist has a deep interest in understanding the inner logic of painting – how multiple concepts and actions operate to affirm what each is trying to say.

6 December 2019
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In a series of works that was recently exhibited at Nicelle Beauchenne gallery in New York, artist Alex Bradley Cohen paints an intimate and revelatory series of portraits that explores the inner self of both the painter and the sitter that arise from cherished conversations. Through a bold use of colour in large, flat blocks that contrasts the muted palette he chooses for his subjects, he paints his friends mid-conversation. The attention he gives to small details and everyday objects – Alex’s glasses in Self-Portrait, chess boards mid-game, a laptop hanging over a sink and plenty of stray cups and mugs – further cements the feeling of intimacy in these paintings.

“I’m from Chicago. It’s also the place that I live and work. I believe that staying home and grounding myself and my work in one place has helped me garner a sense of intimacy and personal perspective that has helped inform and enrich the work,” Alex tells It’s Nice That. “I’ve always been interested in the inner logic of a painting. How a painting is made and presents itself.”

In this manner, Alex is referring to how a painting resolves what it’s trying to say – how it interacts with multiple concepts and actions to finally affirm its position. “I felt that there was something within the diversity of marks, gestures and ways of drawing that spoke to a world within myself that helped me grapple with and begin to understand my own complex subjectivity."

Alex’s Personal Space sees a development in his painting style compared to the much more cubist works in Flat Top from 2017. Although a number of elements still remain that keep the paintings very much his – mixed perspectives, abstraction as a narrative device and his affinity for burnt orange – the new series comes accompanied by changes in composition and a deeper reflection in his use of colour.

“These works came out of conversations that I was having with friends. I found myself being moved by the depth of conversations that we were having and began documenting these moments on my phone,” Alex says. “The conversations began to become kind of revelatory and a kind of practice of world building where our unseen identities were explored and exchanged,” he continues.


Alex Bradley Cohen: Madeline Aguilar, 2019

This conversational process is evident in the paintings. His sitters, often facing the viewer head on, look like they’re in the middle of a conversation, deep in a story that they were telling. Alex points out a sitting with fellow artist Shai-Lee Horodi as a memorable one. “That painting depicts one moment but I could’ve made an easy 50 of her. We had some amazing beautiful conversations over the past two years that changed my worldview on many, many levels,” Alex says of Shai-Lee Horodi.

In the painting, Shai-Lee is placed just slightly off-centre, with her elbows leaning closely together on a dark green table. A mug and a spouted glass sit on the table, the wall separated into four quadrants of varying colours. Shai-Lee, depicted with small wrists and a crumpled dark bluish-green shirt, gestures as if she’s explaining a story. Depicted in the painting is the conversation that the painter had with his sitter, but the details of which are intentionally obscured – rather it’s also about the intangible interiority that is revealed through these intimate moments.

“I simply wanted to explore the interiority of both myself and others. I wanted to focus on what connected us rather than what separated us,” Alex says of the series. Using the language of Colour Field Painting, Alex tells us that the use of blocks of colours in Personal Space serves as a tool to obfuscate information.

Obscurity and secrecy, concepts that often have negative associations today, especially with regards to political processes and data privacy, can instead be seen as tools that take on the intentions of their user. For instance, American Artist’s Dignity Images, explores the concept of images that are intentionally withheld from social media circulation, freed from the persona of the self that they’re required to perform. On one hand, this is possible because the inherent significance of the image doesn’t require it to be shared or to be validated. On the other hand, by withholding them from circulation and keeping it a secret, it intensifies the connection between the image and the person.

Similarly, Alex’s use of colours functions in an analogous way. “I remember sitting back in my studio and asking myself: ‘why do I keep blocking out information?’ That there had to be something to my actions,” Alex says of using the language of Colour Field paintings. “I realised what I was doing was withholding information. That I was making a kind of sacred or safe space for secret sharing between me and my subject. That the painting itself was evocative of a conversation that explored some internal or withheld space.” Through Personal Space, Alex puts forth a series in praise of withheld spaces and a return to one’s interiority.

GalleryAlex Bradley Cohen


Morley Music, 2018


My Aunt Mattie, 2018


Playing in the Bathroom (Keshon and Demario), 2015-18


Pete Fagundo, 2019


Shai-Lee Horodi, 2018


Keon and Kamau, 2019


Keon, 2019


AJ, 2019


Self-Portrait, 2019


Jared, 2018

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About the Author

Alif Ibrahim

Alif joined It's Nice That as an editorial assistant from September to December 2019 after completing an MA in Digital Media at Goldsmiths, University of London. His writing often looks at the impact of art and technology on society.

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