A Stone Man: Writing past Mark Bradford’s Venice myth

Mr. Bradford’s exhibition is not as explicitly political but shaped as a loose journey of self-discovery that can be read in mythological or biographical terms or, often, both at once. The mythological references first appear in a poem by Mr. Bradford hanging on the pavilion’s facade, written in the voice of Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire, metalworking and sculpture. He encounters Medusa: “Mad as hell/I looked her dead in the eye/And he knew her.” Mr. Bradford drew from one version of the Hephaestus myth, in which the boy breaks his foot when cast out of Olympus for trying to protect his mother from a punishing Zeus. “Somehow that story just rang true,” Mr. Bradford said. “That’s the story I heard growing up.” His own life has a bit of an Olympian arc.

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.

Inside the building a rash-coloured, pock-marked canvas hangs into one of the galleries, pushing visitors to the margins. Entitled Spoiled Foot, the piece refers to the Greek god of craftsmen and sculptors, Hephaestus; in one version of the Greek myth Hephaestus is cast out of Olympus after attempting to protect his mother, and breaks his foot. The tale resonated with Bradford; he was raised in a boarding house by a single mother, who was simultaneously trying to build up her beauty and hairdressing business.

‘Tomorrow Is Another Day’ reflects Bradford’s belief in art’s alchemical power to transform, his continuing experiments with material abstraction, and his commitment to marginalized populations. For the five galleries of the U.S. Pavilion, as well as its exterior, Bradford has developed a multilayered narrative that intertwines personal experience and social history, seeing today’s world as if it were the ancient past and raising individual stories to the level of myth, a perspective that reveals the gravity of the present moment. ‘Tomorrow Is Another Day’ features paintings and sculpture that bring back materials used earlier in the artist’s career, as well as some new discoveries, and includes an existing video work that gains new relevance in the current political climate.

Inside the first room, a giant red-and-black papier-mâché tumor-like sculpture hangs from the ceiling and literally marginalizes the visitor, forcing him to navigate around it by clinging to the walls. It’s meant to also represent Hephaestus’s club foot, citing the myth of the Greek blacksmith god’s maiming expulsion from Olympus, but the pavilion’s mythic overlay of gods and medusas—including the poem inscribed outside the entrance—is best understood as a way of tapping into the universality of ancient lore to intensify and exalt Bradford’s core themes of community. It’s a bit silly, and best taken lightly.

In the end, he made 10 paintings and sculptures that present new approaches to his material-driven, collage-based abstraction. The works tangle with America’s political climate—raising social justices issues and giving a voice to marginalized populations. He reprised “Niagara,” a 2005 video installation, and also ventured into verse, writing a mythical poem that greets visitors when they enter the pavilion.

In the pavilion, he will combine painting, sculpture and a video — and draw on Greek myth, which, like abstraction, gives him room to manoeuvre as he tells his own story and, as Anita Hill puts it in a forceful catalogue essay, “pushes people on the fringe to the centre of the room”. Entering through the side door — “the front door felt too Jeffersonian” — we will find ourselves in a war-torn landscape, through which Hephaestus, having injured his foot as he’s hurled from Mount Olympus by his father Zeus, now has to find his way alone. “I wanted to jump past politics and past race, so I jumped to myth to give myself room to play with race, nationhood, sexuality,” he says. Move on to “the Medusa room” and you’ll find three new black paintings and a coiled, dark sculpture. “I always loved Medusa, the fact that she had this rage and could turn men to stone,” he laughs, then adds: “Medusa’s lair is probably my mother’s hair salon.”

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