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Mark Bradford
Pickett's Charge, 2016-2017
Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum
Washington D.C.
July 2019

Bradford "Battle"

"Battle," from "Pickett's Charge," by Mark Bradford, Mixed Media, 2016-17

By Michele Leight

The 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. 

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"Two Men," from "Pickett's Charge," by Mark Bradford, Mixed Media, 2016-17

I 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.

The 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.

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"The High Water Mark," from "Pickett's Charge," by Mark Bradford, Mixed Media, 2016-17

Bradford 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.

The 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.

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Detail of  "The High Water Mark, from "Pickett's Charge," by Mark Bradford, Mixed Media, Executed 2016-17

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.

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View of the Mall from The Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum

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"The Copse of Trees," from "Pickett's Charge," by Mark Bradford, Mixed Media, 2016-17

Introductory text to the show offers insights about the work:

"In 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."

Beautiful detail of "Picketts Charge," by Mark Bradford, Mixed Media, 2016-17

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Detail of "Dead Horse," from "Pickett's Charge," by Mark Bradford, Mixed Media, Executed 2016-17

The 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.

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Detail of "Man With a Flag," from "Pickett's Charge," by Mark Bradford, Mixed Media, Executed 2016-17

"Man 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.

Time to hoist the flag in South Central? Chicago....Detroit....Baltimore....Crown Heights? Too many places still suffer this tragedy.

I 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.

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