By Alan Murdock
“Shade: Clyford Still/Mark Bradford,” an exhibit exploring relationships in the work of Mark Bradford and Clifford Still exhibited in Denver from April 9-July 16, 2017. I visited the exhibit in May.
The relationship between the two artists’ work is both conceptual and aesthetic. In terms of form, large canvases, shapes that look ripped from the canvas or torn into the painting, texture and the relationship of expression to emotion unify the exhibit. Conceptually, both artists explore the use of abstraction to explore the human condition.
As the Clyford Still museum writes, “Abstract Expressionism is marked by abstract forms, expressive brushwork, and monumental scale, all of which were used to convey universal themes about creation, life, struggle, and death (‘the human condition’), themes that took on a considerable relevance during and after World War II.”
Still, and many of his contemporaries, worked with the idea of the human condition as a ‘universal’ experience, and to a certain extent – we all are born into the world. We all learn. We all do things to respond to, adapt to and engage with the world around us. Bradford takes that universal and applies it to context.
In an aside, Bradford describes coming of age as an artist during the LA riots.
This is human experience as influenced by context. Yes, we all lose things. No, we do not all lose things to the grinding machine of social injustice. Context matters, and in that regard, Still needs Bradford, for it is the latter who is maintaining the relevance of abstraction and updating it within a more diversified, stratified mediated environment where the universal gets lost in the crowd, unable to mix, mingle and have a conversation that matters.
Bradford’s works exhibited as part of Shade come out of two influences – Still’s extensive use of the color black in his work, and the failed response to the destruction of the 9th Ward following hurricane Katrina. Bradford examines the meaning of “black” as a color, a culture and an experience. Still’s use of the color largely relates to the notion of the “void” – the ethereal origin of possibility, of danger, of the unknown. The destruction of the hurricane is both void – there is no formula to understand why it hit New Orleans so hard – and non-void – the origins of mega storms in global warming are understood and the social structures that provide resources to some and not others and usually along lines of race, class, gender and privilege are realities that art is particularly well suited to address.
Bradford built the paintings by combining found materials from those disposed of following the 2005 hurricane. Scraps of magazines, books, stickers and more are excavated out of thick layers of paint. The materials were collaged together, intermixed and covered in paint, then surface was scraped away to reveal the elements contained below.
The paintings form grids, topography, as though the visitor were watching the flood as it happens from a news helicopter far above. The work is removed, massive, abstract, yet the personal – the book somebody loved and read rises to the surface and reveals itself to the visitor.
The featured image in the banner to this post and the following image are from a work called “Mississippi Gottdam.” Referencing the song Mississippi Goddamn by the inimitable Nina Simone, who wrote the song in 1963 after the 1962 murder of Civil Rights activist, Medgar Evers.
In this painting, comic book images and other found objects rise to the surface of an undulating composition reminiscent of waves. Heroic words rise and fall, but they are swept away by the power of the composition. The words are tropes of the comic book world. As viewers, we wonder if the forces of the waves are too strong, or if by some heroic effort, some new and better story will emerge.
Nina Simone performs Mississippi Goddamn.