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)

 

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