Exhibition Review: Mark Bradford at the Hirshhorn
I am currently an intern at the Smithsonian Institution's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, where I often give tours of the featured art. One piece I almost always include in my tours is Mark Bradford's Pickett's Charge, a massive collage installment commissioned specifically for the Hirshhorn. It encircles the entire inner ring of the museum.
At first glance, the piece looks like a cool collage installation with interesting colors and material. But, it is also a socially aware and highly political piece. There are so many interpretations and lenses with which one can dissect the piece, and I've written this post to give context and help facilitate possible interpretation.
A Little Bit About the Artist...
Mark Bradford (1961-) is a big deal. He is probably among the most famous living contemporary artists. He even represented the United States at the last Venice Biennale.
He is an African-American artist, born and raised in South Los Angeles, where his mother owned a beauty salon. He began making art with found materials from the salon and around his neighborhood, most notably paper. Paper is his medium. He has said that he doesn't need paint, as paper is permanent pigment.
He likes to explore socio-political issues with his work (which is usually abstracted) and often references art history.
How the Collage Was Made
Bradford actually appropriates a painting of a civil war battle from the 1800s. The historical painting was actually displayed in a cyclorama, an old form of entertainment (that sad time before television, movies, and the internet) where historical moments were painted as a 360 degrees mural, often with 3D figures and props.
Bradford took layers and layers of paper, gridded by ropes, and then placed a billboard-printed version of the historical painting on top. He then proceeded to go back into the collage and rip through it, burn, and bleach sections of the collage. Bradford also rips out the ropes in certain sections and uses them as appliqués. Each panel of the collage weighs more than 700 lbs.
What Does It All Mean?
This is where it gets interesting. First, there is clear symbolic importance in the choice of appropriating a civil war painting. The civil war changed the course of the country's history, and most notably led to the abolition of slavery. The original cyclorama painting provides a narrative for a battle in the war. Bradford seems to challenge this narrative through the literal ripping and exposing of layers underneath. By destroying the imagery, he is not only referencing the inherent violence of war, he is questioning the way we look at history.
History is often told like a novel. There is a plot and there are characters. But who is telling the story? Bradford challenges the validity of traditional historical narrative by exposing the layers underneath. It is also important to note that the panels have no particular order, another way in which Bradford subverts traditional storytelling. His use of brightly colored paper layers is significant not only because it represents the influence of street art and found materials from his upbringing, but also because these were colors that could not be massed produced until recently. So, this collage is literally a merge of past and present.
The original painting becomes almost completely obscured by the violent processes enacted to create the final collage. Besides the historical references and Bradford's typical exploration of history and politics, the rest is up for interpretation. I frequently hear unique and insightful interpretations of this work from museum visitors. Even Mark Bradford has said the abstraction in his piece should allow for a variety of interpretations. That's what I appreciate about modern and contemporary art, its ability to involve the viewer in its purpose.
Pickett's charge will be on view until November 2018. Explore more art posts here.