Tomorrow is Another Day:

Mark Bradford: United States Pavilion, the 57th Biennale di Venezia

                                 

by Deanna Sirlin

 

Mark Bradford

Tomorrow Is Another Day 2016

Mixed Media on Canvas 124 x 215 inches

image courtesy the artist and Hauser and Wirth

I wanted to write a single article on Philip Guston and Mark Bradford together, titled "Young Americans" (with a nod to Bowie) for TAS but could not find a place where these two artists meet. Now, I realize that first impulse was correct: both artists embrace abstraction but also always allow the viewer to see a narrative. Both artists destroy forms and break them down to find new meanings. Both artists look to the past to inform their present states—Guston with his love for the Italian Renaissance and 20th century poets, and Bradford with classical Greek mythology combined with films and texts drawn from the popular culture of the 20th century. Ultimately, they are not so different in their essence and processes. How fortunate to have both these artists in Venice together. Nevertheless, the articles will remain separate!

Mark Bradford’s title for his exhibition, Tomorrow is Another Day, Scarlett O’Hara’s last words in the classic film Gone with the Wind and the Margret Mitchel novel on which it is based, reflects the unmistakable optimism of the American South during the Reconstruction Era. I have always found Bradford’s work, with its urban layering of materials found on the streets and his mother’s  hair salon made into the most luxurious and seductive of painted/collaged abstract images to be extraordinary. Representing the United States at the 57th Biennale, he gives us a complex reading of America today from his biographical perspective. He infuses the narrative of his life into his abstract works.

Although Bradford is an abstractionist, he wants us to know about his life history as a gay black man raised by a single mother in urban Los Angles. He not only allows us to be in touch with who he is in his abstractions, he narrates his history with his titles, text and materials that refer to Greek mythology. He is painting abstractions but always articulates through his work with a poetic acknowledgment of his existence and presence.

 

This exhibition begins with a work, Barren, on the exterior of the United States Pavilion. Bradford takes this piece of Jeffersonian architecture, the pavilion being based on the architecture of Monticello, and transported it like the farmhouse in the tornado scene of The Wizard of OZ to the streets of Los Angeles. A pile of gravel has been dumped in front of the pavilion along with piles of trash, paper cups, and broken old hoses. Bradford thus tells us exactly who he is and where he comes from. "Hephaetus," a poem by Bradford, appears in niches on each side of the building, the text etched on cement on board. Hephaetus is the god of crafts, artisans and, of course, artists. In one version of the myth, the goddess Hera gave birth to Hephaetus and raised him alone, just as Bradford was raised by his single mother. This poetic retelling of the myth gives us much information about the artist and what he is doing in this pavilion; his work is abstract but his narrative is clear.

Mark Bradford

Barren 2017

Gravel Dimensions variable

Photo: Joshua White.

Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

You must enter the pavilion from the left side, where Spoiled Foot, a large hanging form resembling a cocoon fills the entire room. It is made of a myriad of mixed media collaged and crusted together. There are dots and slashes; it is black and cream and emergency orange with clear bright reds. Bradford wants so to touch  this beast, caress this mutilated foot that gets Hephaetus thrown down to earth as he is rejected by his mother.

 

Mark Bradford

Spoiled Foot [details] 2016

Mixed media on canvas, lumber, loan sheeting and drywall Dimensions variable

Photo: Deanna Sirlin Courtesy the artist and Hauser and Wirth

Mark Bradford

Thelxiepeia 2016

Mixed Media on Canvas 8 ft. x 18 ft

image courtesy the artist and Hauser and Wirth

We leave the foot and move to the next room, where there are three large dark paintings  made with permanent wave end papers, a material Bradford knows from his mother’s salon. Bradford had used this material earlier in his career, and said that he stopped using it too soon and chose to return to it in three of these large paintings. Bradford has returned to this way of working by attaching these hair papers onto the canvas that is painted and rubbed with black and violet pigment, the surface becoming like the skin of a snake. The three works are titled, Thelxiepeia, Leucosia, and Raidne, who are all sirens. These elegant dark paintings are like dark skins that allow the eye to focus on the center of the gallery where there is a sculpture titled Medusa. Medusa was the monster whose hair was made of snakes, and if you looked upon her you would be turned to stone. Bradford in his poem says of  Medusa:

I looked her dead in the eye

 And knew her.

 

Bradford is not turned to stone by looking at Medusa; instead, he is empowered by allowing himself to know what she is.

Mark Bradford

Medusa 2016

Acrylic, paint, paper, rope, and caulk, dimensions variable 

image courtesy the artist and Hauser and Wirth photo:Joshua White

We move to the center of the pavilion, where Oracle has wrapped its tar-like painted soft linear forms around and around the architecture of the space, moving up and around the circular skylight in the ceiling that seems like a great knowing eye that can reveal the future. The sheetrock in the building is torn, scarred, and decayed.

Mark Bradford

Oracle 2016

Acrylic, paint, paper, rope, and caulk, dimensions variable 

image courtesy the artist and Hauser and Wirth photo:Deanna Sirlin

In the next room are three large paintings from 2016 made with collage and paint. The palette is the same: black, creams, reds with some of the warm blues of Spoiled Foot. These mural-scaled works are collaged and painted, scarred and torn, and held back together again with the materials from which they were made. The surface is one that has been found, then lost and resurrected.

Mark Bradford

Go Tell It on the Mountain 2016

Mixed Media on Canvas 10 ft. 1 1/2 in. x 12 ft. 

image courtesy the artist and Hauser and Wirth

One of the paintings is titled Go Tell it on the Mountain, also the title of James Baldwin’s semi-autobiographical novel of 1953. How closely Bradford must have empathized with this writer’s life as a black gay man growing up without a father. The painting is abstract, but there is a form resembling a head that has been blindfolded or effaced with a black censor bar. 105194 is a title that mystified me until I googled it. It is a color of Montblanc ink, a very dark midnight blue that must be sold with a warning mandated by Proposition 65 for those living in California that it may cause cancer or birth defects. The painting is collaged with forms and marks very much like the ones in Spoiled Foot. These scarred and slashed surfaces recall artists like Burri and Fontana in the richness of their surfaces and their achievement of beauty through destruction. Tomorrow Is Another Day, besides being the title of the exhibition, is also the title of the third of these paintings. It has the  opulence and scale of history painting.

Mark Bradford

105194

2016

Mixed media on canvas 10 ft. 7 in. x 12 ft

image courtesy the artist and Hauser and Wirth

In the last room is Niagara, a video from 2005. In this artwork, which is projected on a standing wall, we watch the back of a young black man in bright yellow shorts and a tank top as he assertively, purposefully, and sexually walks down a street of Los Angeles. Bradford is giving us a clue to the narrative by the title once again. In the 1953 film Niagara, Marilyn Monroe, the icon of female sexuality, is shot famously from behind as we watch her walk seductively to meet her lover In this film noir, there is a feeling of impending disaster. In Bradford’s video we feel this doom as well; the young man’s sexuality is contrasted with the rawness of the urban street. We know as we watch him that this young man is vulnerable in his travels.

Mark Bradford

Niagara 2005

Video, color, no sound, 3:17 min

image courtesy the artist and Hauser and Wirth photo: Deanna Sirlin

Bradford maintains he is an artist deeply rooted in the language of abstraction. However, at every turn in his work he tells us his story. There is one more aspect to his work that must not go unnoticed. He uses his resources to be socially active. In Venice, he has committed to work with Terà dei Pensieri, a collective that helps individuals transition from prison back into society, over a six-year period. He will work with this organization to help individuals develop such skills as designing objects like PVC bags that will be sold in a shop in the Frari sestieri district of Venice. The proceeds will sustain the program for years to come. Yes, for these individuals, Bradford is helping to make tomorrow another day.

Deanna Sirlin is an artist. She is pictured here with a selfie with Mark Bradford.  She has written about the Venice Biennale  since 1997.  She is Editor-in-Chief of The Art Section

 

www.deannasirlin.com

 

Hephaestus

I mean nobody likes to admit it

Somebody threw me out of my house

They told me it was my mama

But let me tell you somethin’

The hands dragging me to the cliff

(And I kept my eyes wide open)

Were not the hands of my mother.

When I got up

My foot was broken.

Limping through the ruins of a

Burned-out promise

There stood Medusa

Mad as hell

I looked her dead in the eye

And knew her.

She hid me inside her crown

I was quiet, I was safe

Watching

Watching her turn men to stone

But in a windless calm

Black shades

Hidin’ money-makin’ cargo

Stole me out to sea

In the belly of a great dark boat.

Let me out, let me out

Damn! I should have gotten out at the last light.

A stone man can’t hear.

The lust of these men would only be

Satisfied by black gold and the new world.

But when you ask me,

All I remember is walking

All I remember is falling.

Mark Bradford