Mark Bradford Pickett's Charge, 2016-2017
Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum
"Battle," from "Pickett's Charge," by Mark Bradford, Mixed Media, 2016-17
By Michele LeightDetail of "The High Water Mark, from "Pickett's Charge," by Mark Bradford, Mixed Media, Executed 2016-17
Editor of this website, Carter B. Horsley, believes that Mark Bradford
is the greatest living American artist, and I have to say I agree. I
discovered Bradford at MoMA a while ago, and was smitten. Since then,
he has - rightfully - ascended to the lofty heights of fame and
fortune. On a recent trip to D.C., I was thrilled to discover that the
Hirshhorn Museum had a massive installation of his work, "Pickett's
Charge," on view in their magnificent round gallery.
Bradford's fascination with paper began early, with the endpapers
discarded from the hair dyes at his mother's hair salon. Hair salons
were a family specialty. Endpapers and other found objects and paper
detritus from his neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles now form
the vocabulary of some of the most compelling imagery in
contemporary art. Spidery, abstracted cityscape grids sprawl across
large canvases, distressed here, apbraided there, evoking cities
across America, in microcosm. Although these "scapes" are beautiful,
they have a brooding quality, implying that all is not well in the
artists back yard.
South Central Los Angeles where Bradford's
studio is located is the landscape of some of the most violent riots in
American history, and more recently the scene of the brazen murder of
the rapper Nipsey Hustle, who was involved in development projects in
the South Central mall where he owned a store. Hustle once belonged to
his killers gang - the Crips.
This confluence of the banal,
gritty, beautiful and really bad finds its way into Bradford's work. He
has not deserted his roots - the detritus of his immediate surroundings
finds its way into his extraordinary creations, and represent the
people that continue to live with the turbulence of this neighborhood,
reflecting all troubled environments looking for change.
"Two Men," from "Pickett's Charge," by Mark Bradford, Mixed Media, 2016-17
am accustomed to large works by Bradford, but nothing on the scale of
the site-specific, 360 degree diorama - based on a cyclorama by the
French artist Paul Phillipe Phillipotaux in 1883 - entitled "Picketts
Charge," currently on view at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C.
This futile military assault by the Confederate army against Union
forces situated in a strategically far more advantageous position on a
hill overlooking them took place on the last day of the Battle of
Gettysburg, one of the bloodiest battles in American history, from July
1- 3, 1863.
All those involved except for General Robert E.
Lee had no doubt that this was not a battle they could win,
highlighting the tragedy embodied in soldiers having to follow orders,
no matter how outrageous, irresponsible or deadly. This version of
"Pickett's Charge" does not glorify this event. The amorphous shapes of
soldiers appropriated from the original diorama ebbing and flowing from
each canvas, at once visible and not through a conflagration of ripped
and abraided papers, has a haunting effect and tragic effect. When you
have members of the same family killing each other because they are on
opposite sides of an issue - slavery - there is little to celebrate.
inference that present day South Central Los Angeles is also a
battlefield, the scene of erupting violence and brutality between
periods of calm, is inescapable.
"The High Water Mark," from "Pickett's Charge," by Mark Bradford, Mixed Media, 2016-17Bradford
borrows images from the original "Pickett's Charge," and culls them in
endless ways to form abstractions of great beauty despite their often
gory subject matter. The artist seems to be drawing comparisons between
this famous and brutal episode in the Civil War with the violence of
the gang and crime infested neighborhood of his personal life and
world. When a gang member kills a former gang member - or, as
importantly, a member of his own troubled community - it can be
interpreted as brother killing brother in the Civil War. We will not
know if that is what Bradford is trying to say, but it is what I found
myself thinking as I read the titles of his canvases for this diorama
and reading about the Civil War in America. The worst kind of
warfare is against ones own, whoever and wherever they may be. It is a
double tragedy. At the time of writing two young women were killed in
Chicago that were not the intended target - who was a fellow worker at
a non-profit fighting crime in their violent neighborhood. There are
daily stories like this, sadly, across America, of community members
killing each other either by design of often my accident.
original cyclorama is on permanent view at Gettysburg Visitors Center,
Gettysburg Park, Pennsylvania. In its day its realism was said to have
made hardened veterans of the battle weep. The titles of Bradford's
sweeping canvases include "Battle," "The Thunderous Cannonade," "Dead
Horse," and "Man With The Flag." All depict with mind-blowing
virtuosity the history of violence and its continued relevance in our
world today, both on battlefields far from American soil, and the
localized war zones pitting gangs against each other and violence in
general on home ground.
View of the Mall from The Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum
Bradford's elegaic works mute
any fantasy of the glory of battle - as war is so often depicted in history paintings
- and leave us with a pervasive sense of its inevitability and horrific
destruction. We do not seem to change much when it comes to waging war. The idea of soliders on horseback riding into thunderous
cannonfire is prepostrous, yet we continue to engage in equally deadly warfare
today, with ever deadlier weapons that cause horrific injuries if they
don't outright kill.
"The Copse of Trees," from "Pickett's Charge," by Mark Bradford, Mixed Media, 2016-17
Beautiful detail of "Picketts Charge," by Mark Bradford, Mixed Media, 2016-17
Introductory text to the show offers insights about the work:
Pickett's Charge Mark Bradford upends this notion of a faithfull
representation of history, revealing instead the complexity of
historical narrative. Commigling Phillopotteaux's painting with layers
of colored paper, Bradford forms a dense accumulation of materials on
canvas, which he then breaches through various means, completely
shredding some while completely abraiding others. Juxtaposing
identifiable pictorial fragments with a tangled weave of abstract
textures, the resulting composition distrupts not just the original
painting, but also our notion of space and time. Oscillating between
past and present, illustion and materiality, alluring beauty and brutal
violence, Bradford's art encourages us to reconsider the ways that
historical narratives change and are contested over time, as well as
how a seemingly remote,historical epoch appears relevant today."
Detail of "Dead Horse," from "Pickett's Charge," by Mark Bradford, Mixed Media, Executed 2016-17
most identifiable imagery is revealed in the canvas "Dead Horse,"
illustrated above, a sobering depiction of the machinery of war -
canons - being deployed by Union soldiers that will wreak havoc and
death upon the enemy, who happen to be fellow Americans - some of them
fathers, siblings and friends. I have read eyewitness accounts of
soldiers encountering family members and friends fighting for the
"other side" in the midst of the battles of the Civil War. It is
hard to imagine what those encounters were like. Even if they survived
the war, the mental and emotional trauma had to be devastating. It was
a war in which 700,000 died and almost a million men were horribly
injured, not including traumatic brain injury and PTSD, of which there
was no understanding or treatment at that time.
Detail of "Man With a Flag," from "Pickett's Charge," by Mark Bradford, Mixed Media, Executed 2016-17
With a Flag" - detail illustrated above - reminds us of truces,
surrender and victory. When wars are won, the winning side hoists their
flag. It is not clear from this depiction what the circumstances were.
However, it offers some hope that the bloodshed has ended.
to hoist the flag in South Central?
Chicago....Detroit....Baltimore....Crown Heights? Too many places still
suffer this tragedy.
am heartened to think that Mark Bradford still works in the
neighborhood that he was raised in. You cannot improve a place if you
leave it behind. If you love it enough, you stay and try to make things
better for those who are not as fortunate.
The spirit of the
place permeates Mark Bradford's work. His canvases transcend violence
and brutality, and are defiantly optimistic despite the harsh realities
still confronting South Central Los Angeles.
This is a must see show.