If you live, work, or happen to be traveling through Boston any time soon, make absolutely sure you see Mark Bradford‘s mid-career retrospective at the Institute for Contemporary Art. This is not only a killer show, but it’s also loaded with questions and ideas to consider as you contemplate works such as Scorched Earth and Los Moscos. What do these paintings stand for? And are they paintings at all? Mark Bradford definitely thinks so, and this presents the first issue that visitors are confronted with upon engaging with the work: Can painting be about more than brushes, paint and canvas? Because what Mark Bradford does has very little to do with conventional ideas about painting, yet he calls himself an abstract painter. Even paint doesn’t always figure in heavily.
Now the abstraction part isn’t a hard sell. Works like Los Moscos and A Truly Rich Man Is One Whose Children Run Into His Arms Even When His Hands Are Empty “flirt with the aesthetics of aerial mapping,” as Christiopher Bedford states in his catalogue essay. Works like Biggie, Biggie, Biggie visually evoke their subject matter (in this case, Notorious B.I.G.). But making your way through the layers, both literally and figuratively, is where the real stuff happens.
Learning that a work like Los Moscos gets its name from a derogatory phrase- “the flies”- used to describe Hispanic day laborers in the San Francisco Bay area, can allow for looking into this topographical work a little differently. Seeing how these kinds of images can stand for a group, or an instant, physically makes you lean forward in order to look into the symbolism and suggestions that even certain colors convey. You want to see how the work is made along with what it means. Bradford’s work provokes that kind of response.
For students and educators, Mark Bradford’s show encourages exploration related to not only abstraction, but also the possibilities of collage and working with found (and transformed) materials. His work is a spark plug for students looking to redefine conventions in art, including conventions related to the similarities (differences?) between fine art and graphic art. Last but not least, boundaries between painters and performers are explored through the installation Pinocchio is on Fire and the simultaneously funny and provocative dance track Skinny Jeans.
If you can’t make the show, take some time to check out the new site pinocchioisonfire.org, which will take you through highlights of this extraordinary exhibit with commentary from Mark himself.
COMING UP NEXT WEEK: Teaching with David Wojnarowicz and not teaching with the Smithsonian.