VENICE — The front of the US Pavilion is looking trashy. Artist Mark Bradford piled a few loads of gravel up against the porch to waist height, and they’ve attracted some stray cigarette butts and candy wrappers. The gravel is actually an artwork, titled “Barren,” and a fitting, official introduction to Tomorrow Is Another Day, Bradford’s solo project for the 2017 Venice Biennale curated jointly by the Rose Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Inside, claustrophobia kicks in quickly with “Spoiled Foot,” an intimidating, site-specific behemoth. Suspended from the ceiling like a dead whale, the piece dominates the darkened gallery, forcing you to scuttle along the periphery. “Spoiled Foot” references a poem Bradford penned about the crippled Greek god Hephaestus, who was cast out of Olympus for his imperfections; it’s inscribed elegantly on a black concrete plinth placed in a niche in front of the building. In addition to its direct allusion to the god’s deformity, the sculpture makes you aware of your own feet, negotiating their limited options in the space.
Comprised of collaged paper, trash, metal grommets, and orange roofing tile, the piece is shellacked together into a bulging, seething mass that impinges upon your personal space — that precious American concept — and forces you closer to your neighbors than is customary. The good news is that you’re allowed to touch it. The surface is softer than you might expect, which tempers an otherwise daunting relationship. This imbalance — between the sculpture and its audience, scale and space, light and dark — is also an apt metaphor for the way Bradford, who’s African American and 6 foot 7, has always had to negotiate a world seemingly made for smaller, lighter-skinned people.
Such a menacing introduction is unusual for an artist whose oversized abstract paintings tend to charm and radiate an inclusive energy. However, Bradford’s work takes on a new, site-specific context here, embedded in the US Pavilion, which was built in 1930 and modeled after Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation: it’s wrestling with the hypocrisy of Jeffersonian democracy, dreamt up by a founding father who owned his children as slaves. Although the exhibit presents a mix of installations, sculptures, and paintings, the work created in direct reaction to the building itself — with its white, romantic Palladian revival columns and dome — is where Bradford’s message resonates most powerfully.
As you squeeze past “Spoiled Foot,” your pupils dilate. Three giant, bruise-colored canvasses are bathed in natural light from above. As with earlier bodies of work, wherein the artist collaged end papers from his mother’s hair salon on canvas and applied layers of stain, “Thelxiepeia,” “Leucosia,” and “Raidne” feature tiny, translucent rectangles that suggest a rhythmic and cellular presence; repetitions coalesce into surfaces that recall strings of binary code or protective scales. Named for ancient Greek sirens, the dangerous female monsters who lured sailors to their deaths, these shimmering surfaces enchant but refuse to recede into depth, holding their ground in a direct challenge to the viewer while offering only a dusky silence.
In the center of the gallery, “Medusa,” a large flame-shaped sculpture made of roiling sheaths of paper, paint, and rope, holds court. Bradford has homed in on the Gorgon’s hair, which in mythology is, famously, live venomous snakes, and built a figure out of them. Also alluding to dreadlocked ropes of African hair, the work looks like it was made of much heavier materials. “Medusa” boils with feminine power as she points you toward the rotunda.
There, you’re forced to look up, standing under a white dome blackened by churning swaths of tarred and burned paper. “Medusa”’s twisting strands seem to have proliferated to cover the entire dome, except for a small oculus at the top; the ropes spiral down the walls, revealing cracked and stained plaster. “Oracle” is disorienting and vaguely portentous; you feel submerged, possibly in the bowels of a slave ship, or trapped in a dystopian nightmare where nature has begun dismantling the structure. Bradford’s trashed symbol of democracy functions as a gloomy and timely critique for US citizens alarmed by a government that wants to move us backwards politically, economically, and socially. Yet the installation is both ominous and cathartic, conjuring pain alongside a cloudy prediction of hope in the tiny glow of natural light shining down from the very top.
The next gallery segues into a horizontal view and soft natural light, presenting three of the giant paper-collage paintings for which Bradford has become well-known. “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” “105194,” and “Tomorrow Is Another Day” all contain allusions to a vague dome shape in undulating tones of red and black, contained by buff tans and soothing grays. Although the paintings are lovely and satisfying for those who want a more traditional Bradford experience, they don’t pack the sucker punch of the pavilion’s previous works. Conceptually, they seem irrelevant to the exhibit as a whole, but within the context of your journey through the space, they do provide an opportunity to take a deep breath and reflect on a shared experience among living beings.
The final room of the show brings a surprise: “Niagara,” a projected video piece made in 2005. In it, we see the back of young African American man in basketball shorts, bounding up the Los Angeles sidewalk outside of Bradford’s studio. Athletic, sexy, and lithe, the man’s stride suggests strength as well as vulnerability. There’s a snap of energy that says, despite the policing of black bodies in American cities, no one can keep him down. This walk presents a polar opposite view from that of “Spoiled Foot” at the start: not hobbled, not troubled, not afraid. True to the title of his exhibition, Bradford has led us through the dark handicaps, painful questions, and seething affliction that beset America, sending us off with a final vision of a defiant walk into the future.
Mark Bradford: Tomorrow Is Another Day continues in the US Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale (Giardini and San Polo 2559/A, Fondamenta dei Frari, Venice, Italy) through November 26.