Material Soul: Photography and Corporeality in the Work of Josh Tonsfeldt

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What does my body know of photography? — Roland Barthes

The opening moment of Quentin, a 2010 video by Josh Tonsfeldt (b. 1979, US; lives in New York), is a ground-angle bucolic scene, replete with leaves, moss, and a tree trunk, swiftly taken over by a close-up of fry bread smothered in pink pudding and dirt. “Get back over there, buddy,” a child’s off-camera voice whispers to the now-inedible treat as he shoves it so close to the camera that it nearly monopolizes the frame. “What about this?” he offers, as the legs of a squirming spider enter from the right, dancing frantically as they are repeatedly mired in and freed from the saccharine mess. “Right there,” he says with studied satisfaction as he continues to manhandle the arachnid’s body, fingering it into the dessert, drowning it in the fleshy goo. Tonsfeldt’s camera remains fixed throughout, its distracted autofocus constantly gliding from one point to another as it struggles to manage its lush surroundings.

Exhausted, the victim remains motionless for a moment, its sunlit exoskeleton rendered a translucent, speckled tan against the sticky backdrop. Nearby conversation is heard. The squeak of a toy. Clicks of a lighter. It seems like a family outing. “Do you think he’s gonna survive?” an older asks the younger. “Yeah… probably so,” says the boy, weighing this against prior experience. “It’s only pudding.” The spider eventually frees itself and scuttles out of view. A twig descends from above, audibly penetrating the dessert. A shadow of the spider — apparently still within the boy’s clutches — appears in raking light on the bark’s tactile ridges. This intimate, even claustrophobic scene continues in this vein for several moments before the camera is moved back, revealing the pastoral setting in full view, and then abruptly cuts off. Filmed in a single five-and-a-half-minute take at a summertime family gathering, Tonsfeldt’s video is at once visceral and seductive.

The themes that comprise Quentin — material truth, capture of quotidian subjects, embrace of the capabilities and limitations of digital apparatuses, engagement with the body’s increasingly inextricable relationship to cameras and screens — are characteristic of Tonsfeldt’s approach to artmaking. With these actions and circumstances in mind, he investigates the manners in which reality can be captured, processed, and consumed. He destabilizes and restructures images through various digital and physical processes, laying bare or thoroughly reworking elements of their construction, or else dismantling and repurposing their means of display. Traversing material strata, Tonsfeldt’s work can be seen as a continual investigation into — and a processing of — the porous border between the photographic and the corporeal.

Tonsfeldt does not primarily identify as a photographer, and yet the sequences and procedural operations inherent to photographic and cinematic activity — interplay between operator and apparatus, image capture, manipulation of the channels through which images travel, printing — inform virtually all aspects of the artist’s output. Importantly, Tonsfeldt, like Vilém Flusser before him, holds that the apparatus of image capture is an extension of the body’s senses, a prosthesis that facilitates an augmented and intensified engagement with the world. The creation of works of art is not, Tonsfeldt claims, of primary importance, but is rather the inevitable product of his engagement with the photographic, which we might define, following Howard Singerman, as “neither a medium nor the instance of a medium. Rather, it is something like the technical condition of photography, its reproducibility, its circulation, and its dumbly indexical, contingent ties to the world.”1

Tonsfeldt’s artworks stem from an intense personal relationship to the devices and materials he employs; as he gets to know them intimately they become not only instruments of capture but also veritable extensions of his own body. His works are imbued with a sensorial aura, a palpable residue of emotional connection between object and author — a material soul. This intimacy with apparatuses and materials can be glimpsed not only when the machines and processes are running smoothly, but in their potential for disruption and failure as well.

These interests were foregrounded in the artist’s 2013 exhibition at New York’s Simon Preston Gallery, a self-illuminated, environmental installation in which the artist presented several wall-based works, many of which were printed on the reverse side of photo paper, a material that, depending on the ink in question, accepts or rejects the printer’s efforts. In Untitled (2013), for instance, the artist printed an image onto the back of a large piece of photo paper and while the ink was still wet he wiped it away, leaving a cerulean palimpsest. On top he printed an image of Bart Simpson broken up into three out-of-order segments, staggering the smaller image over the larger, effaced one. Here Tonsfeldt is frustrating image legibility through the index of the work’s very own creation. Elsewhere in the same exhibition, the artist pushed these indexical notions further by making rectangular plaster casts of the floor and installing them vertically side-by-side in the middle of the gallery, thereby constructing a wholly new, mimetic architecture within the space. These “walls,” like photographic negatives, bore indexical relations to their source; every crevice and crack made a physical protuberance.

As regards the negative, Tonsfeldt’s output is entirely free of it, as he has only ever employed digital cameras. A great deal of twentieth-century discourse on photography emphasizes the primacy of the negative as the gatekeeper of photographic inversion, reproduction, and dissemination. However, as George Baker has observed, “With the shift from analog to digital media in recent decades, few have mourned the fact that this transition has included the loss of the negative from most of the dominant forms of current photographic processes. Whether considered as the matrix of the voyage of the image from camera to print or as the former primary modality of image storage, the negative once embodied the central operations of both photography and film, and yet it has hardly been noted that in recent years the negative has simply been swept away.”2

While digital cameras are of course instruments of indexical faculty, they have nonetheless shifted emphasis from a relationship between author and negative to a fusion of operator and apparatus and the consequent “lens-based aesthetics” of the post-darkroom photographic era. Tonsfeldt’s images go entirely through digitally coded channels; from the point of initial capture up until the point of execution, they exist completely outside the realm of the physical, residing only in the hermetic vacuum of digital circuitry.

If anyone jettisoned the discourse of the negative in favor of a scrutiny of the seamless fusion of user and device it was Flusser, who in 1983 presaged photographic ubiquity as “a new kind of function in which human beings are neither the constant nor the variable but in which human beings and apparatus merge into a unity.”3 Flusser emphasized the non-impartiality of the apparatus, explaining that what it depicts is not “real,” but rather a transformed index of reality that comes about as a result of the apparatus’s ability to record objects, regardless of any presence of the negative.

Seen through this lens, plaster is an instrument capable of photographic mimesis in its own right. Tonsfeldt’s use of the material is not only a means of inverting the contours of three-dimensional objects, it is also a receptacle of two-dimensional image transfer. The artist fused these capacities in “Adrenaline,” a 2015 show, wherein high-resolution photographs were printed onto single and multipart hydrocal casts. Adrenaline Tattoo, for example, is a cast of Tonsfeldt’s studio worktable upon which he superimposed two parts of a single, peeled-apart LCD screen removed from a flat-screen television. Printed onto the surface of the hydrocal cast is an image depicting a man getting a rectangular tattoo on his chest while his arms are otherwise occupied — his left an ad hoc pillow, his right raised and holding an iPhone, presumably to record the process. Surreptitiously shot from the exterior of the tattoo shop, a glass barrier had separated the artist from his subject.

A physical connection between the printed image and how the material accepts it (crisp resolution where the surface is flat, murkiness in its lacunae) makes it so the eye “feels” the image. Meanwhile, the screen appears as a kind of skin, a porous boundary through which sensorial information is synaptically transferred then transmitted. As the image rides over the cast surface there is a dovetailing of affect: the work’s rectangular shape, the casts of the screens, the man’s tattoo, his iPhone, and the glass “screen” separating subject and witness all echo a screen’s form and function: seen together they act as a bridging of the corporeal and the digital.

What could be more emblematic of the dermal exchange between machine and body than a touchscreen? As Laura Glitsos has commented, “Touchscreens imply the relationship between skin on skin — the skin of our body (in particular the hands) against the skin of the screen. It follows that mobile touchscreen devices suggest a degree of sensuality — in the coming together of bodies, fluids, and other organic materials which ‘stick’ to the touchscreen.”4 At what point does this fluidity become transmutable into other realms? As technology progresses and the lines between life and work, screen time and lived time, the real and the virtual, become blurred — and the self increasingly layered and fluid — the body’s engagement with the screen is omnipresent.

Just as the viewfinder marks the commencement of photographic reality, the framed or screened image is the culmination of its sequence. Indeed, life, work, and leisure are all now experienced through a succession of screens. With this hegemony in mind, Tonsfeldt recently embarked upon two interrelated bodies of work that explore the physiological nature of the screen through absence and presence.

The first is a series of disrupted and augmented flat screen televisions. The LCD displays found within, similar to the epidermal and dermal strata of skin, are layers of extremely thin films that can be peeled apart and removed. Without them, the television is just a grid of lights in a plastic vessel. If moving images are to be viewed as intended, their information must first go through these diffusion and prism films, then the LCD screen itself. Surprisingly, when these films are removed, the LCD display still functions, albeit with different results: “white” information is invisible, and the viewer sees nothing but the lighting grid, but “black” and color images can still be read. In Untitled (2016), for example, Tonsfeldt excised the interior films and glued several items to its grid, including dried vegetation and pieces of clothing. Over this backdrop a video of a pulsating flashlight appears within a floating black animation. The viewer’s attention is thrust from the video to the very mechanisms that enable its legibility, to the familiarity of the objects and back again. The work’s effect, almost respiratory, is utterly hypnotic.

The second is a series of cast hydrocal works that are a seamless fusion of frame and receptacle. Their internal compositions are an admixture of fragmented objects and imagery problematized by the application of the extracted television prism films. The films have a polarized lens effect, obscuring what lies behind them when viewing the work frontally, coming into clearer focus when the viewer moves to either side. Despite this connection between viewer and object, the prism film barrier renders the underlying imagery unattainable, perpetually mediating the viewer’s direct engagement with it, culminating in an entanglement of desire and frustration.

In the press release for “Adrenaline” Tonsfeldt states, “Familiarity becomes something slippery in the timespan of making a picture. The tenderness felt toward a loved one can emerge like a program between you and the camera, a machine-body behavior ready to play itself out in situations untethered from its source.” Indeed, Tonsfeldt’s work has the familiar at its core: forever processing it, abstracting it, pulling it apart, and pushing it into other registers, while never letting it go.

Notes

1 Howard Singerman, Art History, After Sherrie Levine (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2012), p. 60.

2 George Baker, “The Black Mirror,” October, No. 158 (Fall 2016), p. 35.

3 Vilém Flusser, Towards a Philosophy of Photography (London: Reaktion, 2000), p. 27.

4 Laura Glitsos, “Screen as Skin: The Somatechnics of Touchscreen Music Media,” Somatechnics, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 142–165.

Image: Josh Tonsfeldt, Adrenaline Tattoo, 2015, UV cured pigment print on hydrocal, spray paint, epoxy resin, pigment inks, 48 x 32 inches (121.9 x 81.3 cm), courtesy Simon Preston Gallery, New York.

Originally published in Flash Art, Vol. 50, No. 319 (March-April 2018)

Vittorio Brodmann at Freedman Fitzpatrick

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Known for modestly sized canvases of vivid, cartoonish brio, Swiss artist Vittorio Brodmann appears to be pivoting from the candy colored anthropomorphism that defined his earlier work toward a more nuanced and dreamlike vocabulary. Moreover, his latest exhibition advances that his penchant for amalgamating folks and fauna in cramped quarters has migrated into relaxed contours beset by watery brushwork.

The stanza-esque press release succinctly links itself to particular works while doling out generalities elsewhere. For instance, “…that Queen got her hoof on…” clearly alludes to the cerulean-crowned royal sitting astride an orange horse in Midnight Deadlines (all works 2018). Likewise, “….spotting the existential self” meets its match with the faint red “X” hovering over the demonic mouse-pig’s head in X Marks the Self. Yet the vagueness of “market waves” and “quotidian proclivities caught on loop” dismantle the text to image ratio the other phrases so neatly profess, making clear that Brodmann really only wants to meet you halfway.

Indeed, Brodmann’s output is a moving target, vacillating between abstraction and figuration, slapstick and sincerity, happenstance and premeditation, narrative and abandon. Such parlayed ambivalence is at its apex here in Slump, wherein an oblivious “salaried man in Ray-Bans” is accompanied by a looming, vampire-toothed apparition in a sea of pale green littered with fits of pink and orange. More ominous, perhaps, is the sad sack star of Automatism of Acquired Habits who evinces both aggression and amorousness after a bout of drinking. Is his clenched hand set upon assaulting or embracing his paramour? We are held in the balance.

By continually pulling at these inconclusive strands, Brodmann highlights that the subjects broached here (introspection, romantic pursuits, professional relationships, art history, politics) can’t be pigeonholed, as their interstitial nature and must be dealt with case by case. Two Birds, Two Stones, as the title suggests, is the opposite of a shortcut. It’s an arena of dealing with problems as they arise, one stone at a time.

Image: Vittorio Brodmann, X Marks the Self (2018). Acrylic and charcoal on canvas
29 1/2 x 39 1/2 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and Freedman Fitzpatrick.

Originally published by Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles, April 11, 2018

Radical Women at the Hammer

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Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985, the Hammer’s extensive and momentous contribution to Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA was both a welcome and long overdue survey of an underrepresented generation of Latina and Chicana artists. As if having the foresight that 2017 would prove a turning point for women’s voices, the exhibition was at once prescient and culturally imperative. Radical Women was dedicated to an era of extraordinary social and political upheaval during which the oppression of women was actively resisted. It was also during this time many of the countries represented were subject to military dictatorship. Examining how such realities were filtered through the work of female artists in Latin America and the United States, co-curators Cecilia Fajardo-Hill and Andrea Giunta assiduously situated Radical Women at the intersection of the political and the corporeal.

Many of the subversive and conceptually-driven gestures seen here—performances, happenings, and interventions—demanded documentation; therefore, the great majority of work in Radical Women took the form of photography or video. In this respect the installation veered toward monotony—a problem the savvy exhibition design at times succeeded in mitigating. Nonetheless, Radical Women was an eruditely researched and altogether revelatory examination of the urgent desire, indeed necessity for these artists to forge a new kind of bodily representation, one that could speak on its own terms.

A compelling investigation of this was the show’s opener Me gritaron negra (they shouted black at me) (1978), a black and white video projection by Peruvian artist Victoria Santa Cruz. The artist, accompanied by a small chorus, recites a poem through which she recounts the internalization of racial slurs thrown at her during her childhood: “And I hated my hair and fleshy lips,” she orates. In cathartic, songlike cadence she reveals a narrative of self-loathing that gives way to self-realization and liberation: “I don’t step back anymore (Finally!), I move forward with confidence (Finally!),” setting the exhibition’s tone of defiance and self-possession.

The notion of the female body as physical and metaphorical terrain is explored in the adjoining gallery, most overtly in Epidermic Scapes (1977/1982) by Brazilian artist Vera Chaves Barcellos. The massive floor-level grid is comprised of 30 black and white extreme close-up photographs of skin, contrasted to the point of resembling aerial views of arid regions. If Chaves Barcellos uncannily renders the skin terrestrial, the neighboring Corazon de roca con sangre (Rock heart with blood) (1975) by Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta hypnotically fuses body and earth. The grainy Super 8 film shows a nude Mendieta kneeling beside a figure-shaped depression into which she ritualistically pours a bright red liquid to match the placement of her heart (a red-painted rock) before lying face down in it. Against the hard earth her bare, soft body reminds us of its vulnerability and inevitable finitude.

Compared to Colombian María Evelia Marmolejo, however, Mendieta’s meditations seem positively anodyne. While Radical Women clearly aims at surveying iconoclasm, Marmolejo takes her performance-based practice to an extreme. Her Anónimo 4 (Anonymous 4) (1984) is a video of a performance in which the artist tied decaying placentas from recent births to her body and wrapped herself in plastic, later ripping the materials from her body in a ritualized bereaving of the poverty and suffering she is certain the newborns will inevitably endure.

In seeming contrast to this crucible of carnal consequence, the exhibition’s final room hints at the liberating potentials of sexual pleasure. However, the takeaway from Columbian Feliza Bursztyn’s Cama (Bed) (1974), a gyrating machine draped in red satin is not sensual union but the brute mechanics of sex. Even more suggestive and not without humor is Brazilian Lygia Pape’s Eat Me (1975), a projection of a lipsticked mouth surrounded by facial hair. It is difficult to tell, perhaps intentionally so, whether it belongs to a disguised woman or a bearded man. As the glossy lips part and pucker the work oozes sexuality while upending gender roles.

Undoubtedly, Radical Women will serve as an important chronicle that deftly traced commonalities among 120 geographically and chronologically separate artists. Such extensiveness, however, resulted in an overly dense and at times fatiguing installation. Still, the unification of so many overlooked female artists from Latin America makes clear that this exhibition barely scratched the surface of the larger, worldwide exclusion of artists based on gender alone, leaving one with the sad realization that Radical Women was just a drop in an ocean of omissions. Those untold stories can’t come soon enough.

Image: Feliza Bursztyn (Colombian, 1933–1982), Cama (Bed), 1974. Assemblage with stainless steel scrap, cot, satin sheet, and motor. 43 5/16 × 70 7/8 × 27 9/16 in. (110 × 180 × 70 cm). Museo Nacional de Colombia. Artwork ©the artist. Photo ©Museo Nacional de Colombia / Andrés Mauricio López.

Originally published by Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles, Issue 9 (February 2018)

Secret Sister at The Pit

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Secret Sister, The Pit’s current two-person show featuring sculptor Jessica Jackson Hutchins and painter Rebecca Morris, is reciprocal sentiment made manifest. The affinity felt by both artists when they met in 1996 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago has, until now, never been materially explored.

The exhibition often yields interplay between chosen mediums—within the proximity of Hutchins’ sculptures the golden grid in Morris’ Untitled (#10-17) (all works 2017), for example, is supremely tactile. Likewise, the glazes in Hutchins’ Drawn Onward, with their brushed, gestural application, read as paintings embedded in ceramic.

Within this symbiotic backdrop, Secret Sister doles out connection and discord in a pleasingly uneven ratio. The most glaring convergences are found between Hutchins’ freestanding glasswork Writing not Writing and Morris’ Untitled (#09-17), especially in their collision of color and form. Hutchins’ fused contours of white, crimson, and cerulean glass echo the nebulous juxtapositions of the latter—pink and white protozoa shapes here, red and white morel patterning there.

Upending this thread of compositional simpatico are Morris’ Untitled (#10-17) and Hutchins’ Stranger’s House. The former, a watery abstraction of white turpentine-thinned oil paint sandwiched between a black background and its textured grid is countered by the latter, a wall-mounted, blue ceramic sculpture crowned with white and sienna cylindrical forms.

Just as veritable siblings often bear superficial similarities that belie internal differences, Secret Sister is a story of overlaps and divergences that resists simple encapsulation. Importantly, the artists themselves selected the exhibited works, and are hence authors of the weaving of their physical and compositional registers. At times, the narrative that fuels Secret Sister is almost as engaging as the work itself, but is ultimately a patina on the material prowess these artists possess, regardless of any affiliation.

Image: Secret Sister (2017) (installation view. Image courtesy of The Pit. Photo: Jeff McLane.

Originally published by Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles, January 31, 2018

Vivian Suter and Elizabeth Wild at Karma International

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From a distance outside Karma International I could already discern a floating composition of yellow and sanguine red cocooning a cerulean blue. Upon entering the gallery I brushed against the imposing canvas, its lower edges draped unavoidably close to the doorway. Like this painting, the remainder of the works were similarly suspended from the ceiling or otherwise layered over one another on the walls.

Since 1982, Vivian Suter (b. 1949) has lived in Panajachel, Guatemala. The tropical climate and sweeping vistas of her lakeside residence do not so much inform as perform themselves in her work. Suter produces her paintings on stretchers, then un-stretches them. Liberated from constraint they bear the traces of their literally wild plein air creation.

In a comparatively moody composition (all works Untitled, 2017) one can easily make out a horizon split by verdant waters and triangular mountains, while others are monochrome washes that evoke sunsets, tree bark, or avocado flesh. Installed upstairs are four vibrant, adamantly geometric collages by the artist’s mother, Elisabeth Wild (b. 1922), that provide a structural counterbalance to Suter’s gestural methods. Compositionally diametric yet chromatically in synch, the juxtaposition is somehow blunt and subtle, as if to remind the viewer that the artists and artworks are genuinely related.

As I made my way back downstairs I noticed an incoming visitor was holding the front door open for someone. The sudden rush of air made the entire installation flow—canvases undulating, fleetingly lifting their edges to reveal otherwise hidden compositions. The movement of the paintings made tangible the invisible breeze, and with it the tropical flora represented in them. Just then I was there, in Panajachel, if only for an instant.

Vivian Suter and Elisabeth Wild runs September 15–November 11, 2017 at Karma International (4619 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90016).

Image: Vivian Suter and Elisabeth Wild (2017) (installation view). Image courtesy of the artist and Karma International, Los Angeles. Photo: Jeff McLane.

Originally published by Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles, October 25, 2017

A Spaghetti Dress for World Peace at Park View

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The varied forces composing A Spaghetti Dress for World Peace dovetail in a refreshing, intimate press release penned by its curator, Paul Soto, owner of Park View. The show’s invisible but omnipresent muse is Miguel Adrover, an ingenious turn-of-the-millennium fashion designer whose professional downfall was due, in part, to his inability – or unwillingness – to properly navigate the “noise” of financial, social, and political interests. In his text Soto relates the adverse effect that similar noise has recently had on his own art and life. He also concedes that art objects simultaneously perform philosophical and commercial roles, and are, as such, conflicted.

Correspondingly, many of the works here merge unrelated or incongruous elements, none more germanely than an untitled jacket by fashion house Gypsy Sport (2017). Casually hung in the gallery’s closet, the work is an amalgam of upcycled black mesh, oxblood nylon and common grey sweatshirt material. Nearby, Victoria Colmegna’s volubly titled wall vitrine* overlaps adroit sketches and an exquisitely rendered graphite and pastel self-portrait. Similarly synthesized are Dena Yago’s site-specific vinyl text works (REGRESSERGNI, INGRESSERGE, and EGRESSERGER, all 2017). Installed atop three of the space’s doorway arches, these word collisions enact a heightened self-awareness while traversing Soto’s apartment-cum-gallery. While additional contributions by Catharine Czudej, Dardan Zhegrova, Paul Heyer, Heji Shin, and Sam Grossinger echo these notions of fused imbalance, the diverging media and varying execution of the remaining works deliberately rattle this continuity.

Comprising 26 works by an array of 16 contributors, A Spaghetti Dress for World Peace often dips into cacophony, burying decipherable resolution within its myriad folds. Ultimately, though, this decidedly discordant operation mirrors the chaos-induced sentiment of Soto’s relatable words, leaving the feeling that an easily consumable and cohesive exhibition was never really the point here. Unlike Adrover’s clothes, Soto’s exhibition achieves a liberated and reflexive dialogue about the collective “noise” we must acknowledge, both within and outside the realm of art.

*Victoria Colmegna, #229. Super Senior Series: Schiller Schuller in Floral Selfhood Valley, 2015; #62: Who´s Who?: Will the real Jessica please stand up?, 1990; #35.Out of Control: Will Aaron Dallas destroy Elizabeth’s and Jeffrey’s happiness?, 1987; #66. Who´s to Blame?: Elizabeth is running away!, 1990; #41.Outcast: Will anyone speak to Molly Hecht again?, 1987; #17.Boys against Girls: Elizabeth and Jessica team up to fight there worse enemy, Boys!, 1988 (2016). Pastel, graphite, and pen on velvet and paper (commissioned portrait and original sketches by Jimmy Mathewuse, illustrator of the “Sweet Valley High book” series book covers); glass, steel, and PVC vitrine with lock-and-key, 26.38 × 35.75 × 3.75 inches.

A Spaghetti Dress for World Peace runs September 2–October 21, 2017 at Park View (836 S Park View St #8, Los Angeles, CA 90057).

Image courtesy of the artist and Park View. Photo: Jeff McLane.

Originally published by Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles, September 12, 2017

Mark Bradford at the U.S. Pavilion at The 57th Venice Biennale

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A heaving, distended mass. Muted collaged canvases. Menacing, intestine-like forms agglomerated or snaking up a rotunda. Monumental, crimson- inflected paintings. A video of a sashaying, anonymous figure. Thus comprises Tomorrow is Another Day, the trenchant and pensive odyssey that is Mark Bradford’s representation of the United States at this year’s Venice Biennale.

Stepping inside the Monticello-inspired U.S. pavilion, the viewer immediately negotiates Spoiled Foot (2016), a suspended room-sized, bulbous construction made from canvas, sheeting, and paper. Seemingly on the verge of buckling under its own weight, the work is held together by countless screws and washers, and resembles an inverted mountain comprised of lacerated flesh. The work’s title alludes to the deformed foot of the Greek god Hephaestus, who was rejected by his mother, Hera, because of his deformed limb, and thrown from Mount Olympus down to earth. This allegorical play reads as ironic, as Bradford’s relationship with his own mother was a vital and positive force.

Mythological allusions continue in the following gallery, which houses three massive, ink-hued paintings—Raidne (2017), Thelxiepeia, and Leucosia (2016)—whose compositions are made up of hundreds of collaged permanent-wave end papers. The material’s use lies solely within hairstyling, an occupation familiar to Bradford, who worked as a stylist in his mother’s salon before and after his CalArts education. His return to this form is a recuperation of personal language, retooled here to conflate what once was with the uncertainty of what’s to come.

Installed in this same room is Medusa (2016), a heaping mass of tangled paper, paint, caulk, and rope that frustrates the serenity brought about by the neighboring canvases. According to Bradford, Medusa is an allusion to the objectification of the black female body—she’s not a monster by nature, but made one at the behest of male desire and oppression. (1)

The site-specific installation, Oracle (2017), is situated in the pavilion’s central rotunda, functioning as the exhibition’s literal and figurative pivot. Materially congruous to Medusa’s serpentine cords, Oracle makes a nest out of the Jeffersonian architecture’s inherent slave-owning associations, writhing up its authoritarian columns, swirling around its dome, and occupying it almost beyond recognition. Any divination from this oracle is an upending of our nation’s history.

Dominating the fourth room are three monumental paintings, each a product of the densely layered and sanded-down technique for which Bradford is best known. Their exhumed crimson layers imbue a sense of dread or witness to malevolence—loaded associations of physical violence pervade Go Tell it on the Mountain (2016) in particular. The eponymous Tomorrow is Another Day (2016) centers on a black orb set against a dusty background, accompanied by smaller spheres and incised striations that elicit both molecular and stellar associations.

The exhibition’s final room hosts a single video, Niagara (2005), a slow-motion, static shot of a young black man in bright yellow shorts and a white tank top making his way down an unpopulated, littered Los Angeles street. His walk is flamboyant, and determined, situated between a hurried strut and a rebellious sashay. We never know who he is or where he’s going.

Beginning with mythologized personal narrative, moving towards adversity and courage, culminating with defiance and self-possession, Tomorrow is Another Day is a journey of determination that progresses while gazing in the rearview mirror. This doubled action functions as a mask, something that conceals as well as reveals, for “a mask is not primarily what it represents but what it transforms.” (2) Thus the power of Tomorrow is Another Day is cumulative; its layers shed themselves to reveal not only the artist’s uniquely American history, but how it can be applied to that of others from the periphery still finding a voice.

The exhibition title’s iconic words are also the last four that are uttered in the film Gone with the Wind (1939), a tale with not insignificant parallels to our day: a story of America at a crossroads; an era in which the country was unsure of its future, a time that witnessed the population at war with itself. Exploiting the ambivalent nature of the quote, Bradford mobilizes his Venetian Monticello to recondition his past, and in doing so, brings to task the duplicitous pretense of democratic inclusion. It’s no wonder then that he turned to Greece—birthplace of mythology and democracy alike—through which to filter what is inescapably American.

Notes
1 Bedford, Christopher. “Like A Loose Shawl.” Mark Bradford: Tomorrow is Another Day. Hatje Cantz, 2017. 121. Print.
2 Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Way of Masks, tr. Sylvia Modelski (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982), 144.

Image: Mark Bradford, Tomorrow Is Another Day (2017) (installation view). Image courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Joshua White.

Originally published by Contemporary Art Review Los Angeles, Issue 9 (August 2017)