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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Mark Bradford’s Art Giving Shelter in Portugal

Updated: Dec 11, 2021

The artist with one of his pieces inspired by the medieval tapestries, The Hunt of the Unicorn (Photo by Rui Duarte Silva)


Creative people tend to hide in the shadows at family reunions. They try not to make a sound to avoid being called weird. Yet, it is exactly a noise that they must make to be seen by others and to set themselves free.

Named by Time magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2021, Mark Bradford advocates this stance. First called a sissy when he was eight in South-Central Los Angeles, the work of the 60-year-old abstract artist shouts out loud. His recent exhibit is testament to his voice.

Agora is at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto. It is the American’s first exhibition in Portugal, according to the Expresso (December 4). In Europe, this is his first major show since he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2017. The Porto exhibit opened on November 26 and will be shown until June 29. The Serralves writes:

“It focuses on Bradford’s artistic production of the last three years. For the artist, mythology has been a consistent source of inspiration. In this exhibition, it is no different. It reveals a series of paintings, tapestries and works on paper inspired by The Hunt of the Unicorn, (seven Flemish tapestries) made around 1500, and (the ancient) Cerberus, the many-headed dog guarding the entryway to the underworld, suggesting an assessment between current issues and the Middle Ages [when art fell victim to the plague, that most medieval of dangers].

Agora aims to be a space for reflection and discussion of the now, turning to the medieval period as a resonant metaphor for contemporary conflicts and social tensions.”

The word, agora, evokes the Greek translation as a space for discussion. It also plays on the double meaning of the word which, in Portuguese, means now.

The exhibit offers “a meditation of an artist engaged with the world, who is not isolated in his studio, who reacts, assimilates and bears witness to the time we are living,” says Philippe Vergne, artistic director of the Serralves Museum, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP) (November 27).

In one of the exhibition rooms, the artist has reproduced The Hunt of the Unicorn. In the Middle Ages, the unicorn was both a symbolic creature of flesh and spirit, of earthly longing and eternal life. The cryptic progenitor, which is hanging in the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is described by Artsy (July 27, 2017):

“Comprised of seven monumental tapestries -- each measuring 12 feet (3.7 meters) tall and up to 14 feet (4.3 meters) wide – they depict exquisitely dressed noblemen with a team of huntsmen and hounds who pursue a unicorn through a flowering forest. The creature is found, slain, carried to a castle and, in the series’ famous final panel, resurrected, resting in a garden within a circular fence.”

What has the living artist done with the tapestries?

“On these abstract canvases several meters wide, the original motif is obscured under several layers of paper, paint and other materials that form an irregular and variegated texture”, according to AFP (November 27).

But why The Hunt of the Unicorn?

The African American artist says: “In these world-famous tapestries, what struck me is that it is basically carnage: something that is chased, something unusual, different,” reports AFP. It resonates with “the debates that were taking place in the United States about civil liberties, even as Black Americans were literally being hunted.”

How does this Black man cope with living in a country where he is a target?

“Violence is somebody who lives on my block,” Bradford says in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art’s Pandemic Oral History Project (August 14, 2020). “You just want to walk by that house and hope it doesn’t call you in. Every time I see a George Floyd video or Elijah McClain, I mean there’s so many (Black people killed by police), I’m like: ‘Oh, he got called into that house.’ As people of color, especially Black people, on our block is that house. It’s a haunted house. You tell your children: ‘Stay away from it.’ Don’t get into trouble because if you go in that house, something bad could happen.’

“It’s almost like magic realism. How can I process a kid (Tamir Rice) playing with a toy gun and an officer shoots him? In reality, it doesn’t make sense. This mixing of reality and imagination is something like Octavia Butler and her book, Kindred. (The protagonist finds herself shunted between 1976 L.A., where she is a writer, to antebellum Maryland, where she is a slave). It was an interesting idea of connecting. I almost have to go to a space of magic realism to understand what’s happened. To understand this, I have to weave them both together because it doesn’t all belong in this world.

“So, being an artist, it’s like my mind goes to these spaces like when in church and you look up and you know that they can see heaven. When they say, ‘Oh, the spirit moved me. The spirit came inside me.’ That crossing of the spiritual and the reality, I think, is kind of in us anyway. Because when they say: ‘Oh, the spirit moved me gurl.’ Gurl, well, that’s not real. The spirit is not physically lifting you somewhere.

“Now, I say gurl a lot, but it’s not gendered for me. I grew up in the hair salon saying it. I’m using the ‘gurl’ gay tense.”

Born in South-Central L.A., Bradford moved to beachside Santa Monica with his mother at age 11, according to the international fine art gallery, Hauser & Wirth. In his childhood and adulthood, he worked in his mother’s hair salon in Leimert Park, the “crown jewel of black Los Angeles”, where he developed a curiosity in creative expression. After high school, what he calls “educational holes” prevented him from attending college with his peers.

From the age of 20 to 28, Bradford ping-ponged between President Ronald Reagan’s America and Europe, where, for the first time for him, people saw him as just another American, irrespective of race, according to the Expresso December 4). In Europe, he also escaped a painful reality in which complications of AIDS were killing three out of four of his friends and acquaintances. At the age of 31, he began his formal art education at the California Institute of Art in Valencia.

When Bradford started making art, he could not afford expensive paint. While working at the hair salon late one night, exhausted, he dropped some endpapers, which are rectangular tissue papers used in doing permanents for curly or wavy hair.

“I looked down. I thought, ‘Oh, they’re translucent. Oh, I could use these,” he says in a televised 60 Minutes interview (December 22, 2019).

Bradford began burning the papers’ edges and lining them up into grids that he glued into bedsheets.

“I knew I was onto something. I knew this was bridging. This material came from a site outside of the paint store. I think early on I was trying to weave these two sides of who I was together: the art world and the life that I had led. I didn’t want to leave any of it behind. I didn’t want to edit out anything.”

Bradford tears, glues, power-washes and sands layers of paper, according to 60 Minutes. It can take months.

The artist did not sell his first piece until he was nearly 40. The work sold for $5,000. Now, they can sell for millions. Yet, he says that he still upholds his motto: “If Home Depot didn’t have it, Mark Bradford didn’t use it.”

Cerberus (2018) bears out his fidelity to homespun materials in another of the exhibition rooms at the Serralves. The Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles in 1965 inspired the nine huge pieces and the accompanying video, says The Art Newspaper (October 10, 2019). One of the pieces is a 14-meter (46-foot) map.

“What people have to realize, even in relation to the cartography of this pandemic, is that maps are never neutral. They are never impartial. They are partial and hide as much as they show. The size of the continents is deceiving because Europe is a huge continent in terms of weight and power and Africa is comparatively small. These are not neutral spaces,” says Bradford, according to the Expresso (December 4).

“If I’m in America, I only know about the Americans who died of COVID. In a war, we are only told ‘30 Americans died’, not ‘300 people lost their lives’. They can decide which number they give us.”

On August 11, 1965, Marquette Frye, a 21-year-old Black man, was arrested for drunk driving in Watts. A struggle between the police and three members of the Frye family, witnessed by many, triggered six days of revolt. Black and Latin residents had long complained of Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) brutality. Los Angeles Police Chief William Parker compared the rebellion to fighting the Viet Cong, the United States enemy in the Vietnam War, and decreed a “paramilitary” response. The LAPD and other local police departments were deployed to quell the uprising. In addition, about 14,000 California Army National Guard were called up followed by 2,300 members of the National Guard.

A total of 34 people died, more than 1,000 were injured, and huge numbers of properties were reduced to rubble and ashes.

California’s governor appointed the McCone Commission to investigate the causes of the rebellion. The panel’s report identified poor schools, high unemployment and inferior living conditions for Blacks in de facto segregated Watts. It was accompanied by a map.

To the map, Bradford applied rope and his signature layers of endpapers. According to The Art Newspaper:

Bradford was struck by “the way that (the commission) delineated the data” with colored dots. “They had blue for looted and red for deaths. These little hotspots really kind of fascinated me. So, that’s where I started, with laying this map with these hotspots.” But soon, “imagination took over, and you start accumulating more and more hotspots, and it starts to float on top.

“It’s almost like the social became abstraction. That’s what I love to do: to take something social and abstract it. But you know that it’s not going to ever fully belong to the history of abstraction. It’s not going to fully belong to the landscape of where it came. It exists somewhere in between. And that for me as an artist gives me that space. I can work out my ideas, my pain, my trauma, my position in that in-between space.”

Halfway through making the map piece, Bradford decided not to use the red hotspots, so he pulled them off, and “there were things left”, he says in Mark Bradford: Cerberus, a Hauser & Wirth video (September 28, 2019). The gallery showed the work in London in 2019.

“When I removed the grid and the architecture, it felt more botanical. It felt like the urban grid gave way to an urban jungle: half temple, half nature. The land took back the city.”

The Cerberus video is a film that Bradford edited of Martha and the Vandellas performing their hit, Dancing in the Street, released the year before the rebellion. He drove around Watts, projecting the footage onto places where buildings once stood, “recalling the spirit of the place and inserting another history on top of it”.

Bradford was three years old during the Watts Rebellion. His relationship with the revolt “is all through stories. It’s almost like myth-building by this point.” The Motown classic has a “double meaning” relating to the rebellion. Was it a cry for freedom?

“Everything that I understood about 1965 was through my mother, through her friends. One of her friends said: ‘Absolutely no. It was a wonderful Motown song for the summer.’ And my mom was like: ‘Absolutely it was a revolutionary song. It was a call to arms. As it went through the airwaves, we knew exactly what it was.’

“So it still, to this day, has this fabric of myth. And that’s why I use that song.”

As a child, Bradford had read Greek mythology and, for years, believed that Cerberus and other characters were real. But why name these pieces Cerberus?

“Cerberus, for me, was about modern-day gatekeeping, this modern-day xenophobia,” he says, in The Art Newspaper. “I live on a border. I live in between the U.S. and Mexico. All the language, at the moment, is about watching out, watchdogs, invasions. ‘They’re coming!’”.

In Mark Bradford: Cerberus, he says: “I’d like to ask Cerberus: ‘What side are we on? Are we in or are we out?”

Since his use of endpapers, Bradford has experimented with other types of paper, including billboards, movie posters, comic books and “merchant posters” that advertise predatory services in poor neighborhoods, according to Hauser & Wirth.

“After gluing an image pre-selected for its historical significance onto canvas, Bradford outlines it with rope or caulk before affixing numerous layers of different types of paper. The artist then lacerates, erodes, and excavates the surfaces of his paintings using ‘tools of civilization’ to reveal intersections between the layers of signifying materials, thereby transforming and expanding the medium of painting.”

In another room of the exhibition at the Serralves, the Expresso reports: “The walls are covered from top to bottom with a paper image of an isolated unicorn, superimposed with a street poster announcing Divorce and Custody.”

“This piece leads Bradford to discuss the effect of repetition – citing the musical example by Philip Glass – and about the importance of working with the elements, concrete and palpable, that the world and, especially, the urban world, makes available. In this case, as in others, the message is social and inspired, at the same time, in the idyllic image of a unicorn at rest and in a poster aimed at exploring the tragedies of others.”

At the end of the Serralves exhibit, a long corridor displays on either side street posters that read: Sexy Cash We Buy Houses Ugly-Nice-Old-New 323-505-7854 – Old-New.

“I put on several layers, hid words and highlighted others,” Bradford says, in the Expresso. “Each of the posters is different. These caught my attention. I thought, ‘What is sexy money? Basically, there are people selling houses because there are people losing their homes because they cannot pay back their loans to the banks. And this is sexy? It’s perverse, almost pornographic.”

Sustainability on many levels has been foremost on the artist’s mind during the nearly two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, he says, in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art’s Pandemic Oral History Project.

“I almost feel like a salmon going upstream now because there’s a stream of negativity on every level happening now. We have to be salmon and push against it.

“We’re a little scared. We’re all wondering about our sustainability. But when we all say it as a group, there’s power in it. I had the same feeling in 1981 with the AIDS epidemic. I watched everybody die. At that time, I said, ‘The ground is moving. We can’t come up with some solutions right now. You just got to get on the surfboard and surf. You got to just let it be. And that was so hard because everybody looks for answers.

“You can’t eat gumbo and make gumbo at the same time. That’s all. We making gumbo right now. It makes us all feel uncomfortable. And you try to do some things. I was telling somebody that just the other day.

“I said, ‘Gurl, you know how when there’s a big deluge of rain, and you’re running down the street and you’re getting wet. Then, every once in a while, you run under an awning. And you stay there for a minute, and you’re just okay. And then you run back. You’ve got to look for those spaces in between the rain. That’s where we are now. The funny thing is sometimes there’ll be somebody there with you, and you have a conversation. You might say, ‘You know gurl, I’m a little nervous.’ ‘Well, me too.’ And then, you have a moment. You might give each other a squeeze and say, ‘Okay, gurl, I’m going to run out here now.’

Bradford told his oral history interviewer that the two of them were doing just that: taking shelter while giving each other strength.

“What I hope is that my work has a visceral effect on people, that the work crosses the room and comes to them and hits them, that it enters into relationship with their bodies”, he says, in the Expresso. “This is how we know that the communicative circle has been completed.”

The television news show, 60 Minutes, reports: “We were surprised to learn that Mark Bradford still styles hair. He does it for some of his former clients who are also among his closest friends.”

This does not surprise me.

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