WASHINGTON — The events that create our concept of history undergo constant reimagining and reframing by our changing social, political and artistic agendas. Paul Philipoteaux provided a certain frame around this nation’s Civil War, presenting an appealing face to its brutality with his noble history painting “Pickett’s Charge,” which was completed in 1883. Mark Bradford expands this perspective by introducing nuance and room for interpretation to one of America’s most difficult moments, giving space for new ideas to form concerning who and what we are as a people. His 2017 recreation of “Pickett’s Charge” encourages a kind of public reeducation, imagining that we can remake our version of history, together.
The popularity of the phrase “say her name,” which has become associated with a social movement, illustrates how the identities of ethnic minority murder victims continue to matter, but this problem of recognition is nothing new. Historian Henry Louis Gates describes the retelling of the events at Gettysburg by most Civil War historians as “whitewashing the history of [its] most famous battle,” because it truncates the number of people involved and the timeframe in which the battle of Gettysburg (which included Pickett’s Charge) took place. Canonized history has a habit of saying more with what it doesn’t show than with what it does, selectively exaggerating achievements as well as concealing crimes. In an ongoing struggle over what viewpoint of our collective history to prioritize, some advocate for greater recognition that the Negro and women irrevocably contributed to America’s modern definition of liberty. African American cultural critic bell hooks emphasizes: “The history of black liberation movements in the United States could be characterized as a struggle over images as much as it has also been a struggle for rights, for equal access.”
Bradford’s iteration of “Pickett’s Charge” directly contrasts Philipoteaux’s forced nobility, and shows us the destructive energy surrounding the Civil War. His version has alternating rows of multicolored rope that pulls and tears at dozens of layers of life-size paper reproductions of Philipoteaux’s imagery, such as with his panel “Two Men.” In this segment, the erasure of the subjects’ faces is a subtle jab at the narcissism of masculinity, especially when we consider that most of recorded American history was recounted by white men for white men, where women, children and minorities were at best an afterthought. The fact that the men depicted were Union soldiers (denoted by the dark blue of their uniforms) further emphasizes how the winning side of the war had only helped to uphold the system of white supremacy that was so brutally enforced in the Confederacy.
Within Bradford’s “Pickett’s Charge,” there is a rawness, a free construction that flies in the face of popular culture’s insistence on a simplified historical and visual record. Throughout it all, he rips through the history of southern defeat, tearing up Philipoteaux’s “Pickett’s Charge,” emmeshing the reproductions within complementary layers of white, bright blue, and deep black tissue, and then finishes by literally tilling the terrain of this work’s surface with the ropes that binds it all together. This technique leaves a sort of fluid path into the past in its wake, which we most clearly see in his panel “Man with the Flag.” The final result looks like a delicately colored, mille-feuille façade, mixed in with jagged papier mâché sculpting to give it dimension and form. The alternating rough and smooth selection and treatment of his materials serve as a symbolic parallel to his subject matter — uncertain beauty, along with undeniable entropy, lies in the present and future.
With his breakout piece at the Studio Museum of Harlem “Enter and Exit the New Negro” in 2010, Bradford crafted a creamy yellow layered collage on large canvas, recreating a Great Wall of African-America; assembling the piece with gels, singed photographs, and hair curling papers. The new “Pickett’s Charge” demonstrates a peak in the evolution of his innovative and heavily ethnicized collage technique. The abstraction of this piece paradoxically gives us a way to clearly see the complexity of ourselves, and our modern divisions, through a visual representation of the idea of intersectionality. We do not have to take the idealized version of history as our own personal truth.
Throughout his conversation with members of the media for the press preview at the Hirshhorn, he continually made references to the importance of including the voices of women, the teaching of feminist thought, as a central part of our reeducation. He asked the journalists in attendance, “Just how much room are we making in our society for different voices?” In other words, how do the political actions artists take in this time of social upheaval in America challenge previously accepted interpretations of the past?
In Bradford’s perspective, the best way to include ordinary citizens, especially persons of color and nonconforming gender, in the ongoing story of America’s manifest destiny, is to teach disadvantaged youth how to include their own experiences and views in response to significant events. Bradford’s artistic practice takes place in tandem with his youth outreach programs with the LA foster care system and with the Hirshhorn’s ARTLAB+. Through community outreach, he teaches student participants that creating art is an excellent means for reenvisioning historical narratives. His efforts mimic the best sort of history teacher — one who describes facts without spoon feeding their meanings, who conveys how historical recollection is a different sort of image, subject to wildly divergent interpretations. In other words, Bradford plays the scholar alongside the role of artist, is a mentor along with being a creator.
While standing with us during our discussion, he wondered out loud, “Why aren’t [we]casting a wider net to reach communities [where youth] can learn about feminism in middle school along with art [and where] the next Mark, or Michelle, can come about?” He means that creative differences of perspective can help move the social conversation about equal rights, education and access forward. “And,” Bradford added, with a sideways smile, “I’m not here to make perfect pieces — if it gets a little messy, then it’s messy.” In a way, his method of abstraction and loosely ordered chaos is representative of a history and reality itself that is disordered and in the midst of development, that shows his connection to his own inner child and may show the US its true self.