I am a painter, and as a painter, I tend to look at other painters work, under the scrutiny of deciphering the surface, the pictorial plane. The sheer vastness of American Artist Mark Bradford leaves me breathless and dazed. My eye simply can not take in the vast scope of the surface of his longest painting in the Hauser & Wirth gallery, Cerberus. It’s a whopping 365.8x 1371.6cms.
It is the evidence of the degradation of humanity tarred over
I slide back and forth like a camera lens moving in and out, trying to get a better view. All the time, the kaleidoscopic colours pop out of the dark imprinting on my retina. My senses are overloaded, it’s like having too much sugar. I regroup and try to take it on in bite-size bits. It’s easier, each chosen portion just over a metre in length and half a metre in width calms me. I begin to read it like a book, revelling in its typography, its calligraphic nature, its swirls against its rigid boundaries. They are exquisite abstract paintings, each section could potentially be cut up and framed, and in my mind would be perfect.
But because I am meant to consume this painting as a whole, my perception is that I am looking at an urban landscape. It’s a highly detailed view from the air, and it’s a very attractive landscape that is studded with jewels, like the emerald, turquoise jewels that shimmered beneath the belly of the plane, that I flew on into JFK many years ago that left me dumbfounded. I couldn’t work out what on earth I was looking at until we got closer and closer to landing, then my face split with a smile of surprise. Pools, they were swimming pools glittering in this very urban of landscapes. Bradford’s paintings work the same magic on me; it makes me smile with wonder.
So back to Bradford’s Cerberus. In my opinion, you can’t help but think, even without knowing anything in detail about the artist, his background, circumstances or his inspirations, that this is an observation and excavation of humanity: geomancy, the layering of substances, materials, detritus, one subsumed by another.
It is the evidence of the degradation of humanity tarred over. But out of that fractured surface, some of the beauty of the human spirit shines through. It’s a geographic history of humanity rubbing together, pertinent to the black community Bradford grew up in. You see the joy, the pain, the disappointment, the anger, the compounding of communities walled in. And in their anger and frustration, with the injustice of it all, they burn their house down. They cleanse it with fire, they strip their rage bare and show it to the world. They have nothing worth taking, they have no hope. They raise their future to the ground, and they replay it over and over and remake it again and again, just as they have been forced to do so many times over during the hundreds of years they have been denied justice and equality.
It’s there embedded in the painting, the scarification, the communication lines ripped out, pulled up, rented, the viscerated surface, through district after district, the very fabric of communication torn away, excommunicated. This is the way of swathes of black America that have been ostracised, pilloried, over the years. But the way Bradford presents his narrative, you have to search hard to see what’s in front of you, you can be like one of the suited and booted black businessmen I saw on my visit, whiz through seeing its visceral surface and its pop of colour and take it at face value, walking away thinking ‘great done that!’, But for my mind, it’s not just the reveal; it’s what lies underneath the scabs of paint just breaking the surface, that stops you and roots you to the spot. The wanting to find out more, to dig deeper and uncover the dark sensuality of the materials and the stories that lie beneath.
Bradford uses his brute force to cut and rip away the surface like a scab, to reveal the new growth or what was once fine beneath the surface. It’s in tandem with his communities hopes and dreams. He is their hope. Bradford makes it his business to take his community with him on his artistic journey.
After my eyes have eaten a healthy dose of the other paintings on the wall, I know there are more so I go in search of them. Outside I see a lanky frame leaning against the gallery wall. I didn’t expect to meet Mark Bradford, but there he is, and we greet each other like old friends. I stupidly say, “I expected you to be twice as tall”, he laughs and asks why and I say, “because your work is monumental!!” In my mind, I have no idea how he gets to the middle of the paintings without scaffolding. Silly, I know.
“Can I have a photo?” I ask (I never do this)
“Sure” he replies. He’s kindness itself and asks his assistant to take it as we draw each other in like close friends. After she hands me back my phone, I am lost for words and can only say emphatically, “God bless you”. I’m not even that religious in the dogma sense, but I want this man, if there is a god, I want him to be put under his protection, because Mark Bradford is as tall as an oak and a black man and unfortunately in today’s climate, in Trump’s America, that means this inspirational, gentle, human being is a moving target.
Words/Photos Sooz Belnavis © Artlyst 2019
Mark Bradford: Cerberus, Hauser & Wirth London until 21 December 2019 FREE
Visit the exhibition Here