Memory Fuels Art And Activism In Mark Bradford's 'Tomorrow Is Another Day'
Mark Bradford is an activist and abstract artist who tends to get described with a lot of adjectives — tall (he's 6'8"), black and gay; he's been both a hairdresser and a MacArthur Fellow.
"What's most important to me is that I'm an artist," Bradford says. "The rest of it is just — the rest of it is just who I am."
Bradford makes huge works of art that have garnered huge accolades. In 2017 Bradford represented the U.S. at the Venice Biennale. Now his work is on view at The Baltimore Museum of Art.
"Mark Bradford is one of the — if not the — best painter working today," says BMA curator Katy Siegel. "That is a huge statement but I stand behind it."
His Spoiled Foot installation is a looming, bulbous construction, suspended from the ceiling. It's covered with pieces of shiny colored paper, soaked, bleached, pockmarked with a pressure hose. As I walk around it, it takes up more and more space.
Bradford says he wanted the viewer to feel "as if the center of the room was no longer available."
It's a beautiful, uncomfortable and haunting work of art inspired by real-life horrors — "the mold that you saw permeating New Orleans after Katrina, or the skin disease that was one of the first signs of the AIDS crisis," Siegel explains. "He pushes you to the walls" — and he makes you think.
Bradford had a happy childhood, growing up one of three kids raised by a single mom. He says he doesn't buy the idea that kids who grow up without a dad are missing out. "Who cares?" he says. "You just need one person to love you."
His mother owned a hair salon in South Central Los Angeles. He'd watch women come in after work, studying for their degrees as they sat under the dryers.
In his Odyssey series, he uses salon endpapers — used for perms — to cover large canvases. He's painted the small rectangles with a deep purple hair dye, and fastened them with silvery staples.
"Everything that goes on in the hair salon — intimacy, gossip, stories told between women, struggles with power, labor, all of that — is embedded in hair dye and endpapers," Siegel says.
The works glow like satin ribbons. Bradford weaves the struggles of black history into his works of art. He joins social meaning and formal beauty together, on canvas.
The final piece in the Baltimore show is 3 minutes and 17 seconds of silent video — a young man walks down a street in South Central, away from the camera. In long yellow shorts, a white undershirt and sneakers, he struts, swinging his arms wide.
"He is this fabulous, brave figure, who does not hide who he is," Siegel says.
The man is someone Bradford knew from around the neighborhood. "I always just liked the way in which he owned the sidewalk," Bradford explains.
There'll be catcalls, ridicule hurled at him from passing cars. He keeps walking. Bradford knows what that's like. The memory fuels his art and his social activism. He works with foster kids in South Central and Baltimore — and profits from his work go to projects that help young people.
His exhibit Tomorrow Is Another Day will be on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art through March.
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