She was a bad woman: Mark Bradford as Pygmalion

I didn’t go to Venice this year and so I missed Mark Bradford’s Tomorrow is Another Day at the US Pavilion. This means that these reflections are limited to the accounts of those people who I have spoken to who did see Bradford’s work in the flesh, as well as images and written accounts online and the expansive exhibition catalogue.

When it comes to Bradford’s engagement with Classical mythology in this work, I found some interesting friction between how his work is interpreted and his own account of the work. Take, for example, the artist’s engagement with the myths of Medusa and the Sirens in the central space of the Pavilion, comprising a sculpture of the former surrounded by three paintings names after the latter.

In the introduction to the catalogue, Christopher Bedford and Katy Siegel summarize this recourse to myth as follows:

Named for the sirens of Greek myth, they represent the allure, power, and victimization of women in Bradford’s own life, as well as in the mass media.

This angle is then developed further by Katy Siegel in her essay ‘Biography of a Painting’, in which she retells the Medusa story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the tale of the Sirens from Homer’s Odyssey as follows:

Bradford’s dark room…takes the allure, abuse, and rage of the terrible females of Greek myth as figures for his mother and his female friends, Black women violated and vilified by male culture on both a personal, daily level and a commercial, social one. Bradford’s version of Medusa is a feminist revisioning: in the version recounted by Ovid, Medusa is a great beauty who is raped by the god Neptune and then punished for being victimized. The sirens, too, are reread. Modern tellings of the Odyssey tend to laud Odysseus’ strength – his resistance to the sirens’ song of easy pleasure. Bradford focuses instead on the sirens, celebrating the creativity of Lil’Kim and her kin and decrying their exploitation – the demeaning language that men use to describe Black women, the grotesque bodily deformations all women are encouraged to inflict on ourselves.

When we hear what Bradford himself thinks of Medusa and the Sirens in his interview with Christopher Bedford, while there is an element of this feminist approach, there is also a moralizing tone directed towards these women at the same time.

MB: I just thought that, in many ways, Medusa wasn’t Medusa without being turned into Medusa by a man. Fast-forward in popular culture, Nicki Minaj and this kind of grotesque caricature of the black female body – they were turned into that by men.

CB: And Lil’Kim is the origin point for that.

MB: I studied her as somebody so important when I first got out of school. Biggie made Lil’Kim. This idea of the monster, hypersexualized, huge-butt, clawlike long-weaved Superwoman – that’s all a fabrication of popular-culture male fantasy.

CB: So that’s your Medusa?

MB: Yes, that is my Medusa.

CB: This room I think is fascinating because it’s more about women and a woman’s space than anywhere else in the pavilion, without question, and probably than any other space you’ve ever created. This could be of and about the hair salon.

MB: It could be, and it could be about the wages of sin. She was a bad woman and then those things happened to her.

For the reader that has just read about this artist’s feminist rewriting of the Medusa myth and the power of creativity of the Sirens, this moralizing tone comes as somewhat of a shock. At what point in Ovid’s account of the rape and transformation of Medusa is she described as a ‘bad woman’ or that her punishment was a result of the ‘wages of sin’? Bradford’s moralizing here reminded me of another myth in Ovid’s poem: Pygmalion. Of course, the core of that myth is the ‘womanufacture’ of the statue that the sculptor falls in love with and which the goddess Venus brings to life and this chimes with Bradford’s account of contemporary fashioning of the female by men. However, a less well known part of Ovid’s account is its introduction, whereby Pygmalion’s turn to sculpture is his moralizing reaction and outrage at the actions of a group of women called the Propoetides (Met. 10. 238-249):

sunt tamen obscenae Venerem Propoetides ausae
esse negare deam; pro quo sua numinis ira
corpora cum fama primae vulgasse feruntur,              
utque pudor cessit, sanguisque induruit oris,
in rigidum parvo silicem discrimine versae.
quas quia Pygmalion aevum per crimen agentis
viderat, offensus vitiis, quae plurima menti
femineae natura dedit, sine coniuge caelebs              
vivebat thalamique diu consorte carebat.
interea niveum mira feliciter arte
sculpsit ebur formamque dedit, qua femina nasci
nulla potest, operisque sui concepit amorem.

(“Nevertheless, the immoral Propoetides dared to deny that Venus was the goddess. For this, because of her divine anger, they are said to have been the first to prostitute their bodies and their reputations in public, and, losing all sense of shame, they lost the power to blush, as the blood hardened in their cheeks, and only a small change turned them into hard flints. Pygmalion had seen them, spending their lives in wickedness, and, offended by the failings that nature gave the female heart, he lived as a bachelor, without a wife or partner for his bed. But, with wonderful skill, he carved a figure, brilliantly, out of snow-white ivory, no mortal woman, and fell in love with his own creation.”)

To what extent can Bradford’s Medusa and Sirens also be the products of such a moralizing reaction to women in the artist’s life and their image in popular culture? Yet what still remains is the nagging question of why the artist interprets the myth of Medusa, not only in ostensible feminist terms, but also like Pygmalion, whereby a woman who is violated and transformed into a monster is described as a ‘bad woman’?

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