Dallas Museum of Art
Through January 15, 2012
by Erin Starr White
My introduction to the work of artist Mark Bradford was Mithra (2008), a hulking, proud sculpture located in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. This towering ark-like structure was sited on an empty corner at an intersection where floodwaters once surged. Due to its scale and highly emblematic nature, the piece came to be a symbol of Prospect.1, the biennial exhibition for which it was commissioned. Bradford’s plywood ark plastered with commercial posters and topped with an industrial shipping cart stood for the crippled rescue efforts of this poor, but culturally rich, neighborhood. The fact that one could not board the ark says it all.
Several years have passed since I last saw this powerful, yet ambivalent vision of community restoration. Facing Mithra yet again, this time as Detail (2009-10) in Mark Bradford—a survey of the artist’s work organized by the Wexner Center for the Arts—at the Dallas Museum of Art, I was taken with the piece’s soberness in the museum’s grand Barrel Vault. For Detail, Bradford rebuilt only a portion of the ark and positioned the sculpture to look as if it is emerging from the west wall of the gallery. The bulk of the piece, and its placement directly beneath the long, thin window in the gallery’s west wall, makes a powerful formal statement. But I am not certain what else it says. Detail is a partial shell of Mithra. A herald for this well-rounded survey, Detail is an ambivalent figure. This version of the ark captures one’s attention, yet its placement in an institutional setting drains a good deal of its power.
Bradford’s best-known work—vast canvases layered with a medley of papers, paint, string and more—is dense and map-like, echoing the threads of barren residential streets. The artist layers, weaves and sands surfaces that embody a city’s clashing, writhing population as it engages in a range of social roles and conflicts. For no shortage of reasons, these works are critically lauded. They are socially engaged and expose the visual language of commerce and street culture that is so ubiquitous it’s become invisible. A first-time viewer of Bradford’s work will appreciate exposure to so many of these works; Bradford fans will enjoy reviewing these immersive canvases—and seeing some new ones.
Within intimately scaled galleries, I was pleased to see smaller works that handle the dimensionality of painting with focus and gusto. Wear the Bracelet (2008) is slighter and more visually manageable than the massive canvases, allowing the electric energy of rich black and-orange lines to crackle intensely toward the viewer. While Bradford typically lays down string beneath layers of paper and paint (ripping it out to create fissures in the painting’s surface), the similarly sized The Vault of Heaven (2009) leaves the spider web of strings beneath layers of white paint, which resemble the protruding veins of a grandmother’s hand. The effect is sculptural and awfully satisfying.
Bradford’s desire to evolve as an artist is most evident in his recent installation work. Pinocchio is on Fire (2010) is a room-sized installation created specifically for this exhibition. When I entered the empty room, it was quiet. Eight naked light bulbs hang in two evenly spaced rows down the center of the space and dark carbon paper covers the walls. Paired with white, grid-like lines made by taping the perimeter of each sheet of paper, the effect is of inhabiting one of Bradford’s early paintings; it feels soft and cocoon-like, exuding an energy that keeps one on her toes, awaiting something great. The audio component of this piece is so layered and dense that I needed to visit the show’s handsome online microsite to truly make sense of it.
Upon learning that Bradford’s inspiration for this installation was the fictional character Pinocchio-- a figure made by his father, then rejected for his imperfection of not being a real boy—my mind began to weave together a variety of issues important to Bradford as a black, gay, male artist. Relating to Pinocchio as the archetypal other, Bradford fashioned a fictional character—with the persona of the husky, soulful, late Teddy Pendergrass-- to create an audio track exploring the 1980s as it was lived in the black community of Los Angeles. This sound component plays on a loop within the installation and it is complex. It renders societal expectations of male sexuality, the rise of hip-hop culture, and the microcosm of a tangible place, however ambiguous. Such dense layering and the uncanny aptitude to reference the larger world through aspects of the marginalized one is what make Bradford’s work really tick.
Erin Starr White has contributed art criticism to Artlies, Art Papers, Glasstire, and ...might be good. She is an Assistant Curator of Education at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.