Mark Bradford’s Tomorrow is Another Day Part II at the Baltimore Museum of Art by Cara Ober

In real estate and contemporary art, the impact of context cannot be overstated. In the right neighborhood, a tiny hovel with a bad roof and a 1970s kitchen can garner a million dollar price tag, and in a less desirable area, the same house will sit, unoccupied, indefinitely. Artisanal bathroom tile with radiant floor heating can only get you so far; their impact upon home value is inconsequential compared to location and the whims of a volatile real estate market.

Although we often think of art in a vacuum, the impact of environment and context actually plays a huge part in its success or failure. In a global art world, it is customary for museum exhibitions to travel, but site-specific work, made for a particular place and time, does not always translate effectively in a new environment. This explains why Mark Bradford’s Tomorrow is Another Day, conceived and executed for the United States Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale but now at the Baltimore Museum of Art, is essentially the same show as the original, but only musters a fraction of the energy.

I raved about Bradford’s Venice pavilion last May for Hyperallergic, but it was impossible not to compare the wild and maximal aspects of the biennale exhibition to the BMA’s new, sanitized version. I am left wondering if the attempt to translate site-specific artwork from one place and time to another was a well-intended oversight or if Baltimore, as a distinct context for the work, was not seriously considered because the curators knew that most of its audience didn’t see the original iteration in Venice.

The first Tomorrow is Another Day opened at the Venice Biennale in May 2017, representing a United States seething and divided over the inauguration of Donald Trump. This national strife and its global reaction animated Bradford’s exhibition, which was amplified exponentially by its official US platform on an international stage.

This is me, taking photos of intentionally placed trash outside the US Pavillion in Venice in May, 2017

 

In Venice, it meant something when Bradford piled trash and rubble in front of the US pavilion, a building designed to magnify American power and ingenuity. It was particularly meaningful that the interior dome was blacked out with tarred paper and functioned like the bowels of a slave ship. In Venice, the historic pavilion, modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home, lent power to Bradford’s work-as-protest there; the paintings, installations, and video worked in tandem with its context to provoke outrage and much needed critique. In Venice, it was evocative to be forced to enter the pavilion by the side door and not the front, mimicking the role of enslaved people (including Jefferson’s own children) at Monticello, a physical metaphor for the “separate but equal” race-baiting campaign that Trump had just successfully implemented.

 

With the migration of site from Venice to Baltimore, from international to regional, and almost two years into a Trump presidency, the intensity of Bradford’s Tomorrow is Another Day has also migrated.

 

With the migration of site from Venice to Baltimore, from international to regional, and almost two years into a Trump presidency, the intensity of Bradford’s Tomorrow is Another Day has also migrated. As in Venice, Bradford’s large paintings are physically beautiful and the diseased-looking “Spoiled Foot” installation forms a compelling and combative introduction to the show. However, the thrill of an international, politically charged context in Venice lent purpose and energy to the original exhibit, which could and should have been replaced–with new works based on research specific to Baltimore, like a new installation to compensate for “Oracle,” installed under the pavilion’s dome and not included at the BMA, or even the addition of an older Bradford video like “Practice” (2003) where he plays basketball wearing a 4-foot hoop skirt.

I asked about his approach to site specificity in Baltimore at the BMA press preview with Bradford, who said that this time he didn’t want to make any “last minute” works–as he did in Venice. He said that the work’s new site-specific appeal hinged upon his background as an urban black artist now showing in a majority black city, suggesting that his abstract exploration of what race and identity means to him would translate differently, but no less effectively, to a Baltimore audience, rather than a primarily white European audience in Venice.

Mark Bradford at the Baltimore Museum of Art in September, 2018

 

I let it drop after that, feeling vaguely disappointed, but I will admit that I could listen to Bradford talk all day long. He is charming, self-depreciating, and easy to love; his cult-of-personality status lends contagious vitality to his work when he is present. During Vernissage in Venice, I was impressed that the artist chose to play host in the pavilion for most of the week, to conduct tour after tour with museum groups as well as the general public. However, after writing a glowing review of the show, I was left with lingering doubts about the primary function of the work vs. the artist’s personable and hands-on relationship with it, wondering if what I had actually witnessed was performance art, with the artwork functioning as props for a global Bradford brand.

In person, the artist offers a unique candor, authentically earned by his physical stature as a 6 foot 7 inch tall black gay man in America, of never having the luxury of blending into any room he has ever occupied. Bradford embodies his otherness like a champion; he makes it inclusive and universal, nurturing kindred outsiders like the art activist guru savior we’ve all been waiting for. He makes his global success seem attainable; you, too, can transform your own humble beginnings into the pinnacle of high art if you ask yourself the difficult questions and own the answers in your work.

You can’t help but feel a bond; Bradford has the ability to make you feel righteous, included in his American struggle and subsequent triumph through his abstract works. He possesses a natural timing, conversationally but also strategically in his career, with the effectiveness of his political exhibition in the biennale as a primary example. In Venice in 2017, a prevailing sense of disaster, of sourness and gloom and frustration, of the deflation of the ideals of the American democracy were all ripe for the plucking and, especially in his two installation based works in Venice, “Spoiled Foot” and “Oracle,” Bradford challenged all that was wrong with America on a global stage and it came off as a heroic gesture.

Bradford in front of “Spoiled Foot” at the BMA, L, and BmoreArt’s Alex Oehmke enjoying the installation in the gallery

 

“Spoiled Foot” is successfully recreated in a similar fashion in Baltimore, serving as your entrance to the exhibit and sets expectations high. This is what I said about it in Venice:

Inside, claustrophobia kicks in quickly with “Spoiled Foot,” an intimidating, site-specific behemoth. Suspended from the ceiling like a dead whale, the piece dominates the darkened gallery, forcing you to scuttle along the periphery. Comprised of collaged paper, trash, metal grommets, and orange roofing tile, the piece is shellacked together into a bulging, seething mass that impinges upon your personal space — that precious American concept — and forces you closer to your neighbors than is customary. This imbalance — between the sculpture and its audience, scale and space, light and dark — is also an apt metaphor for the way Bradford, who’s African American and 6 foot 7, has always had to negotiate a world seemingly made for smaller, lighter-skinned people.

At the BMA, “Spoiled Foot” is visible through a dramatic entrance arch into the Contemporary Wing, and the space, formerly the Front Room gallery, has been altered so that you must confront and circumvent this object to enter the exhibit. For some, the experience can be giddily joyful and for others it is threatening; either way it provokes a powerful reaction. In both Venice and Baltimore, this installation set high expectations for the rest of the show, which were mostly realized in Venice.

The dark closeness of “Spoiled Foot,” abruptly transitions, and you find yourself blinking in bright light bouncing off white museum walls. The rest of Tomorrow is set up like a traditional exhibit in two large galleries, while the other half of the museum’s contemporary wing, and its vast collection of modern and contemporary masters, is walled off as a temporary storage space with no access, a colossal and awkward distraction if you’re familiar with the institution.

“Medusa,” 2016-18 and “Thelxiepeia,” 2016 at the BMA

 

The first gallery features three giant bruise-colored paintings named after Greek sirens with “Medusa,” a large, flame-shaped sculpture in the middle of roiling, tarred paper, referencing the famous gorgon with snakes for hair. According to the artist, his versions of Medusa and the sirens are intended to celebrate powerful females maligned by mythology, to reclaim their value, and for him, these works were important in defining his own identity as the son of a African-American LA-based hairdresser. It’s a solid room, where physical surfaces and materials have been sourced from real life, from hair salons and Home Depots, rather than the art supply store. The history of the materials imbues these abstract works various layers of meaning – mythological, historical, social, and political.

The third gallery presents three of the giant paper pulp paintings Bradford has become most known for; “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” “105194,” and “Tomorrow Is Another Day” all contain vague hive shapes in undulating tones of red, ochre, and black, contained by buff tans and soothing blue-grays. Tomorrow also includes “Niagara,” a projected video from 2005, featuring a young African American man in basketball shorts, walking with subtle bravado on the Los Angeles sidewalk outside of Bradford’s studio, and it functions neatly as a physical and conceptual exit to the show.

“Niagara,” 2005 (video) and “105194,” 2016 with door to the temporary storage closet at left

 

In Venice, these light-filled paintings felt cathartic and hopeful, as did the video, but this was emphasized by their contrast with “Oracle,” the darkest and most portentous work in the show. Installed inside the central dome, it gave visitors the feeling of being submerged in a dystopian American nightmare.

In Venice, “Oracle” was created last minute, just a week or so before Vernissage week, after Bradford had discovered that the New York Times had published photos of the dome project without his permission–or so he thought. In reaction, he pulled down the original version, which was wallpapered in ‘We Buy Houses’ signs, and created this new piece, seemingly overnight. While most artists would unravel in this last-minute decision, Bradford was pushed to his creative limits and came out on top. He is clearly an artist who succeeds when he thinks on his feet and the intense, reckless energy of “Oracle” formed the heart and soul of the show. Without it, we stroll through two galleries of large abstract paintings of varying color schemes whose materials subtly comment on American culture, on the reality of growing up black in urban America, but without a menacing and contrasting force to orient them. The presence of these last few paintings is reassuring, but they don’t take any risk in being here either, rendered oddly neutral.

“Oracle”, 2017 in Venice with “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” 2016 in the background

 

While I don’t think it was a mistake to bring Tomorrow to Baltimore, I believe that this exhibition could have been more successful had it rigorously embraced the idea of site-specificity as central to its message. Knowing how quickly and effectively Bradford works when he needs to, a large installation created specifically for the BMA would have been a infinitely better than building a giant wall and storing the museum’s contemporary collection behind it. The extra gallery space could have been filled with projected videos selected for a Baltimore audience, or the artist could have created an even larger, trashed and threatening version of “Oracle,” based on all that we’ve experienced as a country (or city) in the past two years.

If you appreciate the power of site-specificity, and the energy generated by locale for this particular collection of works, a consideration of context should have been an essential part of realizing this exhibit in Baltimore. No amount of screen-printed T-shirts or tote bags (or the giant “superhero” banners depicting the kids who made them from the Greenmount West Community Center in collaboration with Bradford and the BMA hanging all over the city) will make this exhibition site-specific in a relevant way if the work itself doesn’t reflect a keen eye towards Baltimore.

Tomorrow is Another Day (the sequel) is proof that it is not enough to simply transport the exact same works, in the exact same order (minus a last minute installation inside a dome) to a new venue and then pat ourselves on the back for blessing a Baltimore audience with Mark Bradford’s genius. Baltimore isn’t Venice and the political climate has evolved significantly in the past two years. We should expect a great artist, curatorial team, and institution to recognize that today’s Baltimore is not 2017 Venice, to view this as an asset, and to plan accordingly.

Baltimore audiences deserve the same deference as those in Venice; and for this exhibit to maintain the intensity created in tandem with its context, it must acknowledge place, time, and audience. As it is, Tomorrow is an exhibition I want to love, but I’m ambivalent. I want more substance, questioning, and risk-taking from one of America’s most powerful artists and an institution staking a claim based on equal relevance for local and global engagement.

Bags and T-shirts, Collaboration between Mark Bradford, the BMA, and the Greenmount West Community Center

 


 

Mark Bradford: Tomorrow Is Another Day at The Baltimore Museum of Art is up through March 3, 2019.