The most important thing about Mark Bradford’s bravura, deeply felt presentation for the Venice Biennale’s United States pavilion is that the bright spotlight of the occasion reveals him to be that thing America can use right now: a new Very Important Artist.
In fact, you could even say that Bradford is our Jackson Pollock—and not just because his well-known process of machine-sanding layers of street posters to make an abstract painting mimics Pollock’s technical invention of the “drip.” (The Affichistes, Jacques Villéglé and Raymond Hains, already went down that path in the 1960s.) Instead, Pollock’s real groundbreaking contribution was bringing a whole other category of endeavor—the whole theatrical performance of “action”—into painting, expanding the medium’s very definition in a way that’s influenced countless artists. Bradford is doing that too, expanding painting by bringing social practice into his artist’s studio by tying his work as a painter specifically to his work with foster children and other at-risk communities.
“When I say the artist is a citizen, I have interest in politics and communities, but it’s still under the umbrella of being an artist,” Bradford said at the opening ceremony for his pavilion. Over the years, he has used his clout as a market star to support numerous social causes in his hometown of Los Angeles, focusing this work through his nonprofit organization Art + Practice. He has sold artworks at auction to raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund these projects. He has also incorporated materials related to his causes, such as street ads for services—usurious lenders, for instance—that prey on the unfortunate, into his paintings. “I like to pull information from the world, material from the world,” he says.
In Venice, as an adjunct to his pavilion, he has pledged to provide funding over six years for Rio Terà dei Pensieri, a local prison cooperative that teaches practical job skills to inmates. Consider it site-specific social work. For him, art is “not just what happens in the hermetically sealed studio, and it’s not what happens in the communities—it’s something in between.”
This positioning is critical to understanding what Bradford set out to do with his US pavilion. Also critical is his personal background. Today, Bradford is comfortable in the corridors of power and wealth, and unhesitant to speak his mind, but his upbringing as a young gay black man in America was that of a quintessential outsider. “The sissy flower landed on my shoulder when I was six,” Bradford says. “People called me a sissy, which meant that you wouldn’t be protected by the herd…. My mother told me, ‘You’re going to need to find a way to navigate across that schoolyard, but I’m always going to be there for you.’”
The notion of what it means to navigate as an outsider, as a gay black man in America, is the central conceit for Bradford’s pavilion. For the artist, the Palladian building itself, with its striking similarities to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, stands for White American Government. As a result, you don’t enter the pavilion through the grand front door, as usual; you enter through the side door, like one of Jefferson’s slaves (or, until relatively recently, any black person in the South) would.
Inside the first room, a giant red-and-black papier-mâché tumor-like sculpture hangs from the ceiling and literally marginalizes the visitor, forcing him to navigate around it by clinging to the walls. It’s meant to also represent Hephaestus’s club foot, citing the myth of the Greek blacksmith god’s maiming expulsion from Olympus, but the pavilion’s mythic overlay of gods and medusas—including the poem inscribed outside the entrance—is best understood as a way of tapping into the universality of ancient lore to intensify and exalt Bradford’s core themes of community. It’s a bit silly, and best taken lightly.
In the next room, there is a central painted-and-bleached-paper abstract sculpture of a medusa’s head surrounded by three weighty, gorgeous paintings of minimalistic black-and-white patterns that Bradford made by dipping hair-salon endpapers into a mixture of hair dye and paint and imprinting them onto canvas. Named after classical sirens, they are each dedicated to an important woman in the artist’s life, beginning with his mother, in whose hair salon Bradford famously and consequentially worked for years.
(The other two are named for different women in the artist’s life, which involves a “sad story,” said Christopher Bedford, the pavilion’s curator and director of the Baltimore Museum of Art; when later asked who the women were, Bradford grew uncharacteristically taciturn and dismissed the question, saying of the work, “People like to make it more narrative than it is.”)
Leaving this room behind, you enter the pavilion’s rotunda, which posed the greatest challenge to Bradford because he sees it as representing the most official, governmental space in the building, and therefore his opportunity to address his perspective on his country’s government. In the inaugural remarks, interim US ambassador to Italy Kelly Degnan praised the opening as a wonderful occasion for “people who love art, and that includes the United States government”—drawing skeptical murmurs from the crowd, considering who is presently in charge—and said it was a “great privilege” to support Bradford in representing the country.
The artist, on the other hand, is emphatic that he does not intend to represent the United States government in Venice: “I’m black, but just because I’m black doesn’t mean I’m representing the whole black race,” he said. “I don’t believe in a univocal representation of nationhood either. That’s impossible. That’s not what I’m about.”
So how did Bradford tackle the rotunda? He peeled the plaster from the walls, obscured the skylight, and affixed ropes of painted-and-bleached black-and-gold paper up on the ceiling, transforming the space into an eerie ruin, reminiscent of both Angkor Wat and a foreclosed home, with a distinctly submerged feel. (Fans of “Stranger Things” may be reminded of the Upside Down.)
Bradford described it as being “like a grotto where you can come and then get out your rage and frustration at what’s happening.” Ropes of paper are tied into grotesque naval knots on the walls, symbols of the Middle Passage. Its unfinished state suggests a phase of dissolution, not construction. “It’s too soon to start talking about rebuilding, because the ground is still moving,” Bradford said of the national mood. “How can you rebuild when the earthquake is still going on?”
After the rotunda, you’re greeted by a suite of supernally lovely large abstract paintings—the sanded-poster works for which Bradford is best known. They are bold, dynamic, replete with ingenious ways of marking the canvas, magisterial. Looking at their patterns, you’re alternately put in mind of operations on the cellular level and the mysteries of the cosmos. This is the way Bradford thinks in his social practice as well. He explains: “I go between the micro and the macro, where the macro is policy change the micro is the local level. I go between helping one person and trying to change the policy.”
The last room, unexpectedly, is a video work. A young black man (a friend of Bradford’s) walks down a Los Angeles street, a poster wrapped around a streetlamp to the right, a discarded 40 bottle to the left. Wearing a white tank-top, baggy yellow shorts, and shoes with pulled-up white socks, he alternates a noticeably sashaying gait with an occasional burst of breaking into a running jump.
For several minutes he walks down the street, but for every ten steps he takes, he seems to barely move forward—it’s as if he’s walking on a treadmill. After a few minutes, the video ends, with the protagonist only halfway down the street. It’s a poignant, personal work, skeptical of progress and used to its difficulty but exuberant and optimistic all the same. The title of the show, after all, is “Tomorrow Is Another Day.”
“I’m better at innovating than creating,” Bradford says of his work, and in his pavilion you can understand what he’s getting at. His work is filled with a rough, hard-fought elegance. He’s improvising, using what’s around him, trying to make something good out of it, and that’s what makes him a great artist.
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