New Acquisitions, A New Exhibit, and The Venice Biennale for Mark Bradford and the Baltimore Museum of Art: An Introduction by Cara Ober

Although he works in sculpture, video, and socially engaged community projects, Mark Bradford is arguably the abstract painter of our time. His giant canvasses speak the language of contemporary painting fluently: monumental scale, organic proliferating compositions, a palimpsest surface of scarred and layered marks, and a multiple million dollar price tag. However, what’s most relevant about Bradford’s work right now is the way his chosen materials—instead of expensive oil paint, he uses found and printed paper combined with Home Depot supplies–challenge the fraught history of painting and seek to subvert its tradition of cultural and market dominance.

Bradford, who started out as a self-taught artist and hairdresser in Los Angeles before attending California Institute of the Arts on scholarship for college and grad school, will represent the United States at the 57th Venice Biennale, which opens May 13, with Tomorrow is Another Day, a solo project. At a unique historical turning point in America, Bradford, especially as a black, gay male artist, has found a seductive way to address pressing social and political issues in his work; rather than undermining it, Bradford extends the tradition of painting, reimagining its purpose through a beautiful object, rather than a didactic sledgehammer.

Mark Bradford’s “My Grandmother Felt the Color” at the BMA

The artist’s appearance in Venice brings a serendipitous connection to Baltimore through the Baltimore Museum of Art’s new director, Christopher Bedford, who has worked with Bradford on numerous exhibitions, including the Wexner Center and the Rose Museum at Brandeis University, where Bedford was the director before moving to Baltimore in August 2016. As a result, the BMA will partner with the Rose to curate the U.S. Pavilion in the 57th Venice Biennale, a coveted space of global prominence and scrutiny.

After Venice, Tomorrow will come to the BMA from September 2018 – January 2019, and the museum has already installed a new acquisition by Bradford. “My Grandmother Felt the Color” (2106) is a gargantuan mixed-media abstraction that roils with a circular, organic energy and dominates the room at 132 x 156 inches. In “Color,” uneven circles of earthy reds, ochres, and gray-blues crest like a lunar landscape, while a scarred, lyrical surface reveals itself as paper pulp, but only when you examine it at arm’s length and allow the vastness to envelope you. “Color” embodies the lively contradictions of painting; its size makes it aggressively dominant, but its surface is warm and charmingly vulnerable.

This piece, along with an even larger work by Jack Whitten, sits prominently in the BMA’s contemporary wing in a gallery newly devoted to social abstraction—work that builds upon established trends but that offers social commentary in its content, materials, and subject matter. In contrast to Abstract Expressionism, which was largely about exploring one’s subconscious, and Minimalism, which posits a physical object’s thingness as content, social abstraction derives content from the world and is especially informed by symbolic material culture.

“9/11” by Jack Whitten at the BMA

In Bradford’s case, his painting process offers satisfying, intensely additive and subtractive visual tropes, with battered Terry Winters-esque surfaces and proliferating allover compositions. Closer inspection reveals that Bradford employs the quotidian material of paper—all types of text, posters, and flyers—but very little actual paint. Not just a formal choice, Bradford’s use of paper within the context and language of abstract painting is a direct challenge to relevance and purpose of the genre, the primacy and expensive nature of it; but it works because his paintings are so convincing as, well, paintings.

From a historical perspective, the tradition of painting lives in a sacred and sovreign place among all other art media. Especially throughout European art history, for centuries painting has occupied prime real estate through aggressive colonial force, dominating other art forms and voraciously appropriating from ‘exotic’ cultural forms without recourse or recognition of the original source. It is this paradoxical history that Bradford’s sanded paper pulp surfaces address through their everyday materials; they essentially grin and flip the bird at the entrenched systems of art historical dominance built by wealthy European patrons and artists while offering it a big bear hug. They are convincing because of their ability to seduce, to speak fluently in the traditional language of painting.

 


It is this paradoxical history that Bradford’s sanded paper pulp surfaces address through their everyday materials; they essentially grin and flip the bird at the entrenched systems of art historical dominance built by wealthy Europeans while offering it a big bear hug.


 

Although it’s not technically part of his studio practice, Bradford’s ideas have extended significantly into activism, most significantly in the community project Art + Practice, a space he founded in L.A.’s Leimert Park Village, with the philanthropist and collector Eileen Harris Norton, and his partner, the community activist Allan DiCastro. Featuring a combination of exhibition, education, and public programming spaces on a 20,000 square foot campus, Art + Practice transcends the traditional expectations of the  ‘community art space,’ as it offers services to foster youth in a collective and practice space, as well as affordable housing initiatives for homeless people, and professional and educational counseling for participants. This engagement appears to be thoughtful, reflexive, collaborative, and designed to make life better for those who need it most; you can’t help but project this kind of earnestness onto the canvasses as well.

Bradford’s social engagement now extends as well to Venice, where, in addition to the series of new paintings that will be installed in the U.S. Pavilion, he has launched a community-based campaign. Designed to assist male and female Italian prisoners as they re-enter society, the program partners with them to sell their homemade products (mostly purses and cosmetics) in a rented Venetian storefront redesigned by an architect hired by Bradford. The project is planned to extend for a full six years and will be run as a partnership with Rio Terà dei Pensieri, a local cooperative dedicated to finding employment for people serving prison sentences.

Given Bradford’s variety of process and initiatives, built upon an authentic desire to challenge the boundaries of the art world in pursuit of equity, his selection to represent the US in Venice places him squarely among a growing cohort of contemporary artists who have used the international platform to place social justice at the center of their message. Curator Okwui Enwezor’s sprawling exhibition at the 2015 Biennale, Emily Jacir’s engagement with the Palestinian crisis at the 2007 Biennale, as well as American contemporaries Theaster Gates (Rebuild Foundation and Dorchester Projects in Chicago) and Hank Willis Thomas (For Freedoms Project), are all part of a growing tide of artist-curator-activisits who challenge the traditional boundaries of what art is and whom it exists for.

 


Specifically, Bradford’s work also creates a space that allows artists to naturally embody multiple practices, to be pragmatic and political and erudite makers, and to view differing projects as one cohesive career, rather than a compromised or fractured practice.


 

In Baltimore, and in other small cities where the art community is closely joined to the social justice movement, Bradford’s work and message should resonate. In 2018, his presence at the BMA, both his work and in person, will be a welcome opportunity to build community, to ask questions, and to consider ways to access and use funding towards a greater good.

In a previous interview with BmoreArt, Bedford stated that social abstraction, and painting by black artists in particular, is a high priority for the BMA. “Painting is the most elemental of all practices. I love painting. I have always loved painting,” he said in August 2017. “I think that African-American painters are making the most important abstract and figurative painting in the world today . . . Mark Bradford has reinvented a way to be abstract, and it’s both formally and socially embedded.”

It is this dual opportunity, to blend authentic social activism with decadent, luscious painterly surfaces that can be loved on their own terms, and to consider both practices as equally important, that makes Bradford a compelling and appropriate choice for both Venice and, later, for Baltimore.

Mark Bradford with Christopher Bedford in Venice with female employees of Rio Terá at the opening of their new store.

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Author Cara Ober is Founding Editor at BmoreArt

Photos: Top courtesy of the artist’s website, artwork at the BMA by Cara Ober, and Rio Terá store photos from Venice courtesy of Christopher Bedford