With That Ass, They Won’t Look at Your Eyes
With That Ass, They Won’t Look at Your Eyes
LEFT: Mark Bradford, Pinocchio is on Fire (detail), multimedia installation, dimensions variable, 2010. Installation view: Mark Bradford, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, 2010. Photo by John Kenrard.
I first became aware of Mark Bradford in 2002 when I visited the University of California Fisher Gallery to see the group exhibition Mixed Feelings: Art and Culture in the Postborder Metropolis. I was relatively new to the border: I had been hired to be the director of university galleries at The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) about 18 months prior. In my quest to educate myself about border issues and artists who were addressing them, and to settle upon strategies for how the galleries at UTEP might contribute to that body of research, I visited Mixed Feelings. Bradford’s contribution to this show was Jericho, a sculpture that consisted of a hairdresser’s chair elevated so that its seat was about seven feet above the floor, a large mirror and three back-lit plastic signs of the type that are ubiquitous to retail establishments in urban neighborhoods. One of them spelled out in black and red letters, “Tired of color! Try the LR Look. Ani-pedi $15.” What is the LR Look? Is Ani-pedi supposed to be Mani-pedi? These unknowns add to the both the ridiculousness and the mystery of the positive change that the sign promotes. Jericho is known in Judeo-Christian tradition as the place of the Israelites’ return from
bondage in Egypt. In Jericho Bradford likens the mundane salon to a nearly sacred space of pilgrimage, social gathering and interaction. The makeover promised by the misspelled signage is a secular transformation no less than the spiritual ones promised in the Bible. Jericho also recognizes small business owners as instrumental to the cultural and economic dynamic of the city. Demographic diversity and its inherent cultural richness and racial tension are part of the urban fabric. Cultural theoretician Mike Davis claims that in the case of Latino immigrants, even if they are in theory applauded for their initiatives that contribute to the economy of cities, they are in practice persecuted.1 Other research uses Los Angeles as a case study and concludes that Asian immigrant merchants harbor prejudice toward the more established merchants in the African-American neighborhoods where they have located.2 Bradford is African-American and Jericho celebrates the entrepreneurial culture that he is closest to. His subsequent works are broader in impetus and meaning. The two works exhibited here are examples of this. With That Ass, They Won’t Look At Your Eyes (2012), tackles the subject of the Bill of Rights, and Niagara (2005) portrays
individual expression in public space.Together they address the concept of civil liberty. In 2002 I was searching for art that more directly referenced the border climate in order to create exhibitions that would shape the identity of the university galleries, which two years later developed into Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts (Rubin Center). Bradford’s Maleteros [Porters], a project for inSite 05, the periodic art event in San Diego/Tijuana, fit within this scope and encouraged me to continue to track the artist’s trajectory.3 For it Bradford developed relationships with three groups of porters who competed for business along the transportation strip between San Diego and Tijuana and unified them by customizing their equipment to create a single, visual identity. The artist acknowledged how this underground labor force courageously negotiates a political divide. This project transpired during the time that Bradford was creating the body of art work that would bring him international attention. From around 2000-2004 Bradford created numerous works where he layered thin, rectangular papers that hairdressers use for permanent waves into grids of subtle color mounted to stretched canvas. Everyone, including the artist, refers to these collages as paintings, in part because their visual strategies are more similar to those of abstract painting than to any other type of art that has come before them. With That Ass, They Won’t Look At Your Eyes combines the socially driven impetus of Maleteros with the format of painting. RIGHT: Mark Bradford, Los Moscos, mixed media on canvas, 125" x 190 ½", 2004. © Mark Bradford; Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.
LEFT: Mark Bradford, Niagara (video stills), DVD video, 3 min. 17 sec., 2005. ÂŠ Mark Bradford; Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.
“MAYBE IT’S ABOUT… TRACING THE GHOSTS OF CITIES PAST. IT’S THE PULLING OFF OF A LAYER AND FINDING ANOTHER UNDERNEATH. IT’S THE… DETAILS THAT POINT TO PEOPLE SAYING, ‘WE EXIST; WE WERE HERE’.” - MARK BRADFORD
By 2011 the curatorial identity of the Rubin Center as a site where artists address its immediate environment, including the border, the city and the desert, was established. I was by then not only ready to build out from this but was also familiar with and increasingly intrigued by some of the subjects of Bradford’s art: the history and energy of the city, mercantilism, and creating a voice for people who are under-recognized or disregarded. I contacted Bradford early that year and extended an open invitation to him to exhibit at the Rubin Center. A few months later he proposed a painting that would incorporate printouts of messages from chain cell phone texts that warn about activity at border checkpoints in southern California. For example “be careful there is a police checkpoint on Alameda and Florence … pass it on.” By fall 2011 that concept had changed. The artist wrote, “The more I thought about the project for UTEP, I wanted to open up the conversation to more than Los Angeles.” What resulted was With That Ass, They Won’t Look At Your Eyes, created especially for exhibition on the Rubin Center’s longest wall. It is Bradford’s largest painting to date
and its subject is the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution that were ratified by Congress in 1791. Of these, the First Amendment (Freedom of Speech, Press, Religion and Petition) is perhaps the most famous, quoted and contested, and is fundamental to the ideals of this country. The painting’s title subversively addresses how the media has abused this First Amendment freedom. Bradford states,
“with exposé after exposé on the ‘immigration problem’, the images are usually negative - overcrowded schools, states that are bankrupt, drug violence, etc. These images are so constant and persistent in the shaping of the U.S. collective that a real conversation about immigration cannot happen. The light is too blinding and makes everyone blind to the real intimate day-to-day struggles of millions of people.”4 In other words, mass media reporting is biased in its selectivity. As feminist and educational advocate bell hooks, who chooses not to capitalize her name, maintains, “No one, no matter how intelligent and skillful at
critical thinking, is protected against the subliminal suggestions that imprint themselves on our unconscious brain if we are watching hours and hours of television.”5 The media is simultaneously misleading and powerful. Bradford was inspired to create text-based paintings such as With That Ass, They Won’t Look At Your Eyes by the merchant posters that populated the cyclone fences surrounding lots where buildings were burned during the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. Each of the posters consists of a solid and brightly colored background covered edge to edge with blocky, black text that advertises a good or service, such as “Life Time Hair! 100% Virgin Indian Hair. Invest in Yourself and Save” or “The Promise Land Sober Living For Men and Women. Free Cable and Utilities.” Since at least 2000 Bradford has used the hundreds of posters he has collected as the basis for collages, both physically and conceptually. Corner of Desire and Piety (2008), for example, consists of 48 posters, twelve across and six down, each emblazoned with the phrase, “Propane Delivered to FEMA trailers 504-733-8764.” The message emerges as if unearthed because Bradford outlined the
letters in acrylic caulk, added layers of additional paper, then sanded back the added paper until the outlined letters revealed themselves. The New Orleans, Louisiana area code suggests these were posted after Hurricane Katrina. The painting was completed three years after the 2005 storm, a testament to the enduring residue of the crisis and the sluggishness of the federal relief efforts. The artwork is primarily black and silver, with glimmers of red and green that peek through the monochrome layers. The original and literal message offers assistance, but distressed and repeated as it is here, it seems like a cry for help. The savior proved to be inept.
The billboard-sized work James Brown is Dead (2007), also combines multiple posters, but here the readable text is an oversized, singular phrase that emerges from the multiple, obscured messages behind it. Brown’s death literally looms large. The painting’s text reminds us of the musician’s contributions to creative life. The stratums beneath that text speak to the contributions of many other unsung heroes. For With That Ass, They Won’t Look At Your Eyes, Bradford transcribed the Bill of Rights; consequently the sheer number of letters and words allies it with Corner of Desire and Piety. But like James Brown is Dead, each sentence is written only once.
There is a handmade quality to Bradford’s text. Plus, it begins with script from sources found in the streets. These two traits distinguish it from the production of many of the best-known contemporary artists who create art with text. For example, Jenny Holzer’s is electronic, On Kawara’s is austere and cerebral, and Lawrence Weiner’s looks mechanical and is ironic. All are clean and cool. In contrast, Bradford’s process is both collage and de-collage, additive and subtractive, thoughtful and full of heart. The completed painting has a reworked surface with many layers evident beneath it. Bradford reflects, “Maybe it’s about … tracing the ghosts of cities past. It’s the pulling off of a layer and
ABOVE: Mark Bradford, James Brown is Dead (detail), torn and pasted printed paper, 47¾" x 267" , 2007. © Mark Bradford; Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.
finding another underneath. It’s the … details that point to people saying, ‘We exist; we were here.’ ”6
back toward the reduced palette and the grid. It is reminiscent of his end paper collages (2000-2004).
With That Ass, They Won’t Look At Your Eyes is primarily black and silver and the grid of posters that serve as its base is subtle but clear. The subtly colored grid seems to be Bradford’s current tendency, after several years of complex and colorful compositions such as Los Moscos (2004) and Black Venus (2005) that look like starbursts or aerial views of meandering roads of ancient cities. Pinocchio is on Fire (2010), a magnificent installation of a grid of solid grey, graphitecoated pages may have been a turning point
In Niagara, Bradford filmed the backside of his young neighbor, Melvin, as he walked down the urban street near his home in Leimert Park, an area known to be the center of the African-American artistic activity in Los Angeles. Melvin wears baggy shorts but sachets his hips and is fearless in his effeminacy. The video’s title derives from the 1953 film Niagara that featured a 16-second shot of the back of Marilyn Monroe in a tight, black skirt walking away from the camera. Art historian Katy Siegel says, “Melvin’s walk
is a protest, a refusal to hide or to be someone else, an insistence on his right to exist.”7 With That Ass, They Won’t Look At Your Eyes and Niagara together become an assertion of individual freedom. Like Jericho of a decade ago, they signal a determined prosperity in the face of the threat of injustice.
K ATE B ONANSINGA
D I RECTO R STANLEE AND GERALD RUBIN CENTER FOR THE VISUAL ARTS
THE FIRST 10 AMENDMENTS TO THE UNITED STATES CONSTITUTION, KNOWN AS THE “BILL OF RIGHTS ,” WERE RATIFIED ON DECEMBER 15, 1791 AMENDMENT I
Congress shall make no law respecting an estab-
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy
·With that Ass, They Won’t Look at Your Eyes,
lishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise
the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial
mixed media, 132" x 492", 2012.
thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of
jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall
the press; or the right of the people peaceably to as-
have been committed, which district shall have been
semble, and to petition the Government for a redress
previously ascertained by law, and to be informed
of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be
Exhibition funded in part by Patricia Hewitt Silence Memorial Art Fund.
confronted with the witnesses against him; to have
Mark Bradford created the mixed media painting With That Ass, They Won’t Look At Your Eyes for exhibition at Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts, where it is exhibited for the first time. It is his largest painting to date. Bradford (b. 1961, Los Angeles; resides Los Angeles) is the recipient of numerous awards including a 2009 MacArthur Fellowship Award. He is represented by Sikkema Jenkins & Co.in New York City.
compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the secu-
favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his
rity of a free State, the right of the people to keep and
bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
AMENDMENT VII In Suits at common law, where the value in contro-
No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered
versy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial
in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in
by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a
time of war, but in a manner to be
jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of
prescribed by law.
the United States, than according to the rules of the
AMENDMENT IV he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause,
or things to be seized.
AMENDMENT V No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against
© Mark Bradford; Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.
·Niagara, DVD video, 3 min. 17 sec., 2005.
© Mark Bradford; Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.
ENDNOTES 1 Davis Mike, Magical Urbanism. New York: Verso, 2001, 63.
2 “Black leaders claim that Korean merchants, like other commercial outsiders before them, are involved
AMENDMENT VIII Excessive bail shall not be required, nor
in economic exploitation of the black community and hinder the rise of black businesses. Resentment sometimes results in organized boycotts or collective violence,
excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and un-
such as the Los Angeles riots of 1992.” Ronald Weitzer,
usual punishments inflicted.
“Racial Prejudice among Korean Merchants in African
supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons
AMENDMENT IX The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others
American Neighborhoods.” The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 4, Autumn, 1997, 587. http://www.jstor.org/ stable/4121081?seq=1, accessed February 21, 2012.
3 See Conwell, Donna, “Maleteros by Mark Bradford.” In inSite 05: Art Practices in the Public Domain, San Diego/Tijuana, 2005, unpaginated.
retained by the people.
4 Bradford, Mark, e-mail to author, February 7, 2012. 5 hooks, bell, Teaching Community: A pedagogy of
Hope. New York: Routledge, 2003, 11 as cited in Burke,
The powers not delegated to the United States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Barry, “bell hooks on education”, The Encyclopedia of Informal Education, 2004. www.infed.org/thinkers/ hooks.htm, accessed February 20, 2012.
6 http://www.pinocchioisonfire.org/#/about/exhibition, accessed February 22, 2012.
7 Siegel, Katy, “Somebody and Nobody,” in Christopher http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/bill_of_rights_transcript.html
Bedford, Mark Bradford. Columbus, OH: Wexner Center for the Arts, 2010, 110.
himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
RIGHT: Mark Bradford, Corner of Desire and Piety, (detail), mixed media collage, set of 72 collages, 135.75" x 344.25", 2008. © Mark Bradford; Courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.
This publication accompanies the exhibition Mark Bradford: With That Ass, They Won’t Look at Your Eyes, which was curated by Kate Bonansinga for Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts at The University of Texas at El Paso, May 24, 2012 – August 31, 2012. PUBLISHED BY:
STANLEE AND GERALD RUBIN CENTER FOR THE VISUAL ARTS The University of Texas at El Paso 500 W. University Ave. El Paso, TX 79968 915.747.6151 Fax 915.747.6067 http://rubincenter.utep.edu http://facebook.com/rubincenter http://twitter.com/therubincenter RUBIN CENTER HOURS Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Thursday 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday by appointment.
Copyright 2012 by the author, the artist and The University of Texas at El Paso. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any manner without permission from The University of Texas at El Paso.
Antonio Castro H. GRAPHIC DESIGN Alina Castro COVER: Mark Bradford, With That Ass, They Won’t Look at Your Eyes (detail), mixed media, 132" x 492", 2012. © Mark Bradford; Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York.