2017-04-27 14:30:03
An Artist’s Mythic Rebellion for the Venice Biennale

LOS ANGELES — Mark Bradford, one of America’s most acclaimed painters, could not figure out what to put in the grand rotunda.

This artist, who is set to represent his country in May at the 2017 Venice Biennale, found an unusual way of working long-distance. In a warehouse in South Los Angeles, not far from where he grew up, he created a full-size model of the Biennale’s United States pavilion, a stately building with echoes of Monticello. Then he spent the last year testing out his ideas in it.

“This a Jeffersonian-type space, something you see in state capitols,” he said, pointing to its central dome. “I wanted it to feel like a ruin, like we went into a governmental building and started shaking the rotunda and the plaster started falling off. Our rage made the plaster fall off the walls.”

With a nod to its Palladian architecture, Mr. Bradford often calls his pavilion the White House. As in: “I wanted to bring the White House to me.”

Sitting on a crate, his long legs extended, Mr. Bradford, 55, was confronting a pressing concern beyond exhibition plans: How can he represent the United States abroad at a time when — as a black, gay man and a self-proclaimed “liberal and progressive thinker” — he no longer feels represented by his own government.

The broad social changes in America — from the police violence that ignited the Black Lives Matter movement to the messages of hate that he feels were unleashed by the November election — fueled a personal sense of crisis that permeates much of his forthcoming show in Venice, “Tomorrow Is Another Day.”

He remembered being invited to the Obama White House with other artists two years ago and feeling that “our voices mattered — fast-forward, and now they’re talking about cutting the N.E.A.,” he said, shaking his head.

And, aware of his own status as an international art star with million-dollar sales, he expressed concern for those more vulnerable.

“I felt like a lot of the progress we’ve made to be inclusive, to make sure young little trans kids are safe, was gone in the blink of an eye,” he said. “Making this body of work became very, very emotional for me. I felt I was making it in a house that was burning.”

Mr. Bradford’s replica, Doric columns and all, gave him a chance to try to bring something of the Giardini, the Venice park that hosts the national pavilions, to South Los Angeles and vice versa.

In the rotunda, he first tried lining the walls with silver paper. Then he installed a colorful “waterfall” sculpture — a cascade of paper strips.

Finally, nine or 10 versions in, he realized he needed to “keep it hot, keep it urgent.” He plastered the walls with what looks like a decaying mural: a gritty collage of fragmented images from cellphone ads scavenged from the neighborhood, which target the friends and family of prison inmates. “Receive calls on your cellphone from jail,” they say — in exchange for what turn out to be predatory rates.

He calls the merchant posters “parasitic” for the way they profit from misfortune. And he sees his work as “a reminder: Don’t forget there are people in need.”

Judging from the mock pavilion, the Venice show could be his most urgent exhibition to date. Inside, his roughly elegant abstract paintings have erupted into sculpture, and he is pushing the limit of how much personal and political weight an abstract canvas can actually carry.

“Building the pavilion was great, because I was making this thing that’s all about power into a safe place where I could play, have angst, fall on the ground,” said Mr. Bradford, who, at 6-foot-8, was slouching to make himself more accessible. “It’s like taking a hairbrush and lip-syncing your favorite song in the mirror when nobody’s looking.”

While pavilion funding comes primarily from a State Department grant of up to $250,000, it is not unusual for selected artists to bite the hand that feeds them.

Several have questioned the Olympic-sport model of “representing” a country, and some have made their Biennale art a platform for challenging such nationalism. In 2011, the artist duo Allora & Calzadilla took on the American military complex by installing an upside-down tank outside the American pavilion, with a treadmill on top used by a runner. (Roberta Smith of The New York Times called it “angry, sophomoric Conceptualism that borders on the tyrannical.”)

Mr. Bradford’s exhibition is not as explicitly political but shaped as a loose journey of self-discovery that can be read in mythological or biographical terms or, often, both at once.

The mythological references first appear in a poem by Mr. Bradford hanging on the pavilion’s facade, written in the voice of Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire, metalworking and sculpture. He encounters Medusa: “Mad as hell/I looked her dead in the eye/And he knew her.”

Mr. Bradford drew from one version of the Hephaestus myth, in which the boy breaks his foot when cast out of Olympus for trying to protect his mother from a punishing Zeus. “Somehow that story just rang true,” Mr. Bradford said. “That’s the story I heard growing up.”

His own life has a bit of an Olympian arc. His single mother raised him in a boardinghouse in South Central while building, at odd hours, her business as a hairstylist. After he was bullied for being, he said, “a sissy,” she moved them to Santa Monica — a more accepting, “Birkenstock-wearing, fruit-juicing” hippie enclave. Later, as a young gay man in his 20s, he wandered and traveled, feeling no reason to plan for a future when he saw so many men with H.I.V. dying. Finally he went back to school, studying art in community college before being accepted into the game-changing California Institute of the Arts.

After earning his B.F.A. and M.F.A., he was in his late 30s and working in his mother’s salon when he created his breakthrough paintings: Agnes Martin-inspired abstractions made from the white endpapers used in perming hair. “I liked how they pointed to the world,” he said. “And I could get a whole box of endpapers for 50 cents. I would affix them to bedsheets, because I couldn’t afford canvas.”

Soon that would change: The paintings caught the eye of the curator Thelma Golden, scouting at the time for her groundbreaking 2001 “post-black” survey, “Freestyle,” at the Studio Museum of Harlem, and the collector Eileen Harris Norton, now a close friend and one of the few to see the mock-pavilion in progress. (She called it a “powerful and complete experience — I like that Mark is telling a full story.”)

His Biennale exhibition starts, and almost stops, with a bulbous red and black sculpture, “Spoiled Foot.” Bulging from the ceiling, it forces visitors to hug the room’s periphery. And its mottled, diseased-looking surface, made from canvas and paper, is as close as this artist has come to ugliness.

This blistered skin is no accident. Mr. Bradford, who talks about feeling “pushed out” by his own country these days, says he first felt a profound sense of “expulsion” when the AIDS crisis hit hard with painful deaths, compounded by government indifference.

The second gallery features another sculpture, “Medusa,” made of black paper rolls as thick as fire hoses that have been soaked, wrung and shaped into coils that recall the snakes of Medusa’s hair. Three new paintings, each named for a Siren, hang on the walls. They are his first endpaper paintings in 13 years and his darkest yet, the papers dyed to create a black-on-black palette. “I like the tension between the dark paintings, where everything is underneath, and the Medusa sculpture, this externalized rage,” he said.

Christopher Bedford, who proposed Mr. Bradford to the State Department on behalf of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis (he now runs the Baltimore Museum of Art, which is co-presenting the U.S. Pavilion), sees this gallery, with its hair imagery, as an “homage to the black women who were the ballast of Mark’s life in the beauty salons before he could stand on his own two feet.”

“Black is not ever a neutral color, especially in the hands of a black painter,” said Mr. Bedford, who curated the exhibition with Katy Siegel. “To go that deep into black is a very heavy and loaded action.”

The dark tone of the exhibition changes after a passage through the rotunda, leading to new, large-scale paintings that evoke cellular or galactic forms — and a feeling of expansiveness. He makes these paintings without brushes or any kind of liquid or powdered paint, building up layers of colored paper on canvas and using a tool, like an automobile sander, to expose the various hues buried in the layers. Or, as Mr. Bedford put it, “He’s using the sander as a paintbrush.”

The final gallery can be read as a celebration of the gay black body, featuring his video “Niagara” (2005). It follows a black man in orange shorts walking, with the flamboyant hip action of Marilyn Monroe, on the streets of South Central. The video touches on sexual and economic vulnerability but also exuberance. Perhaps Mr. Bradford, who has borrowed the exhibition’s title from the last line of the Civil War novel “Gone With the Wind,” is ending on an optimistic note?

The rotunda, with its prison references, offers a link to the artist’s new project outside the pavilion walls: He has made a six-year commitment to help fund a prison cooperative in Venice that assists inmates in building job skills. The program, Rio Terà dei Pensieri, helps prisoners run a farmer’s market and manufacture goods like cosmetics to be sold. With his backing, Rio Terà is also opening a store in Venice this month.

Closer to home, in Los Angeles, Mr. Bradford’s community work and philanthropy focus on foster youths in Leimert Park, the neighborhood where his mother had her salon Foxyé Hair. (She now lives in Atlanta.)

Three years ago, he, Ms. Harris Norton and his life partner, Allan DiCastro, a former banker who had also been a neighborhood council leader, formed a nonprofit group, Art+Practice, to help offer services like housing and job preparation to local teenagers in foster care.

Mr. Bradford used part of his $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant for its start-up costs. The group is now funded mainly through his art sales. While other artists today position their activism as artworks (“social practice” is the buzzword), Mr. Bradford does not regard Art+Practice as his art project. He plays down his creative role, stressing the importance of working within the existing community fabric, even if it is torn and frayed.

“You have to do a lot of listening for communities in need,” he said. In the process of researching Leimert Park, he learned that 40 percent of the district’s high school students were in foster care. He brought a similar approach to Rio Terà.

“I had to ask myself when I got this pavilion, what do I want to do with this?” he said. “I knew I did not want to stand on the mountaintop as Mark Bradford but find a way to help build different relationships.”

He is hoping they will last long after his large paintings have left the United States pavilion and the summer crowds empty out of the leafy Giardini.