In collaboration with the Clyfford Still Museum, the Denver Art Museum (DAM) opened Shade featuring work by renowned contemporary artist Mark Bradford, who will be representing the United States at the Venice Biennale this year.
Shade: Clyfford Still/Mark Bradford features the works of Mark Bradford at the Denver Art Museum and Clyfford Still’s work at the Clyfford Still Museum. Shade underscores the legacy of abstract expressionism and Bradford’s exploration of abstraction’s power to address social and political concerns. As an African-American painter, Bradford has long been fascinated by Still’s extensive use of black as a signature component of his work. Shade explores both artists’ unique relationships to the color black in their paintings, whether it’s used to force viewers out of their comfort zones, evoke emotions, or confront conventional notions of race.
Bradford, a world renowned African-American contemporary visual artist attributes Still’s work as inspiration for his own art. Both men have created very large scale works, so large that most require an entire gallery wall each. Both infuse artifacts and pieces from their 3D lives into their 2D paintings. Although, because these entwined bits lift off the canvass, they, too, are arguably 3D in some respects – they have a physical presence. Both artists explore the use of the shade Black as a primary feature in their paintings. Bradford is quoted as saying, “Black is like Voldemort. It has fears and possibilities. Black is the most difficult color to work with; it will cause you to fail.” He goes on to describe his process, “My paintings are made up of tearing. To me it represents a process that is more of a reality than laying down perfect lines of paint. It’s raw and violent but it still comes together.”
Every piece is stunning, but two pieces stood out for me: “Mississippi Gottdam” and “Rebels on the Plantation.” “Mississippi Gottdam” is comprised of debris Bradford collected in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This piece represents his visual critique of recovery efforts in low-income neighborhoods. The work is implanted with paper and other materials he found there. The embedded pieces evoke memories of the flotsam and refuse covering the neighborhoods after the floods. Bradford borrowed the title of this work from Nina Simone’s 1964 song Mississippi Goddam, which was an anthem for urgent social change and racial equality.
Continuing with the theme of social justice, Bradford’s “Rebels on the Plantation” conjured deep emotions for me. Images of ancestors toiling in the dirt, dying where they stood, existing in a parched, dry, dark place filled my senses. A video of the artist talking about his life and work was shown across the room from a wall filled with newspaper clippings from the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till.
Bradford puts all of himself (and a lot of our collective American and human) experiences into his artwork – literally. He has included leftover residue, trash, fine minerals, recyclables, and the very core of earth itself in the layers of his magnificent pieces. What makes these pieces so compelling is the fact that unless you know what you are looking at, you don’t see it – you don’t know that it is there. Once you become aware of the “secret ingredients” present in his works, the level of awe you have experienced by seeing these splendid pieces grows exponentially.
Born in South LA, Bradford has a deep sense of community. Having witnessed how a lack of educational and social resources can affect a community, Bradford collaborated with neighborhood activist Allan Dicastro and philanthropist Eileen Harris Norton to establish Art+Practice (A+P) in the Leimert Park neighborhood of LA.
With a commitment to work with a student muralist, Bradford’s exhibit and the Montbello neighborhood are working on a community art project with DCIS Charter School at the Montbello campus. This unique opportunity comes under the auspices of the school program at the DAM and Bradford’s desire to reach out to the area’s African-American community. A special meeting with the student muralist and other DCIS students is scheduled for late May.
One of Denver’s African-American philanthropists, patron of the arts and supporter of the exhibit, Tina Walls said, “The arts help to interweave all of us together in the American mosaic.”
Editor’s note: Khadija Haynes, co-founder of the Colorado Black Arts Movement and a partner organization with the Montbello Organizing Committee’s FreshLo grant from the Kresge Foundation, can be reached at email@example.com.