Kate Bright, Locks Gallery, Philadelphia (Artforum)

The title of Kate Bright’s exhibition, “Soft Estate,” referred to the fertile swaths of land that run parallel to railroads and highways in the UK, where Bright photographed the flourishing nonnative flora that are, in her words, “escapees from the domesticated environment.” Painted from composites of these photographs, Bright’s sensuous—and deeply ethical—canvases extend her two-decade occupation with the landscape as both urgent environmental concern and contested artistic genre.

In Holloway, 2017, which is named after a major London thoroughfare, massive mustard yellow, flame red, peachy orange, and hot-pink leaves tinged with lilac crowded into the foreground like overgrown shrubs blocking a hiking trail, creating the illusion of foliage aggressively pushing out of the painting’s bounds and into the viewer’s physical space. In the past, Bright’s series of (literally) glittering snow-covered landscapes had drawn critical comparisons to Karen Kilimnik’s dreamily picturesque snowscapes and glassy, swirling rivers of Pollockian gesturalism, and to Lucas Samaras’s abstract mirrored and beaded works. Here, however, in choosing a palette conventionally coded as exotic,

Bright seemed to deliberately appropriate contentious modernist Paul Gauguin’s colonialist color harmonies, as exemplified in the much-debated Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?), 1892, which depicts brown-skinned Tahitian girls crouching in the foreground of a lush fantasy landscape. By exoticizing banal British roadside fauna, Bright tests the implications of turning a colonizing gaze on a small part of her own culture. While her gesture is potentially problematic given the contextual leap between these painters’ starkly different projects, Bright succeeds in making these familiar views strange (to borrow an anthropological term), unsettling the viewer’s relationship to often unnoticed plants.

Three large-scale works from the series “Between a Dog and a Wolf,” 2018, depicted with buttery brushstrokes the outstretched branches and fluttering teardrop-shaped leaves of the sumac tree, an invasive, sometimes poisonous shrub native to North America and the Middle East. (The tree was introduced to the UK in the early seventeenth century.) The series’ title bluntly points to this tree’s unresolved status as neither domesticated nor wild, the plant having been captured and cultivated at a moment of European imperial expansion and now seeming at home in the margins of exhaust-fumed roadways. The sumac leaves are rendered in what appear to be impossible hues—pastel purples and yellows shimmer alongside toxic oranges and olive greens—yet this tree can truly burst into such vibrant tones in the fall. Intensifying the disquieting implications of Bright’s exoticized palette, this somewhat troubling visual pleasure might foster new understandings of and even behavior toward the natural environment.

This exhibition’s most naturalistic paintings were smaller-scale textural close-ups of ferns rendered in accrued layers of browns: Shelter Belt, 2017, and Bracken, Snape, and Lopeway, all 2016, depicted grasses and thickets along bridle paths. Though there are no human figures populating the scenes—as is the case throughout Bright’s practice—the closely cropped images are framed as if by a person behind a camera. In Shelter Belt, an orange glow seems to come from car headlights beyond the picture plane. In Lopeway, the edge of a torn black plastic bag is visible under the twigs and grass. Whether the bag is a mere piece of litter or the trace of a crime concealed, its inclusion in the tableau reinforces the sense of human threat to a vulnerable environment.