In the Vance-Waddell Gallery at the Cincinnati Art Museum, three enormous, swirling, silver-plated paintings by Los Angeles-based artist Mark Bradford shroud the space. The exhibition, Maps & Manifests: New Work, jumps traditional genre boundaries: In unequal parts, the work is cartography, collage, painting, drawing, excavation and chaotic advertising.
The largest work in the room, "Bread and Circuses" (2007), pushes you back farther and farther until you nearly bump the gallery's opposite wall.
It gives the distinct sense of something so large it becomes invisible. Like cultural norms, even racism and sexism. When you're too close, it's impossible to see the whole of what you're seeing. Bradford forces his viewers back -- outside of the reality of the painting -- in order to see it for what it's worth.
The title, of course, is borrowed from that truism from the Roman Empire made famous by the poet Juvenal. The masses will be happy if they are entertained and full. They will not feel the need to look too carefully into government or other not-so-moral goings-on. Have we ever heard of a palace coup in a time of peace and prosperity?
Bradford's painting deals with Los Angeles. When you stand far enough back, you can see the lines and textures -- a map of the city. And yet the lines run amok and swirl here and there, losing track of the street grid, distracting the viewer from his or her vantage point.
Words pop from the obscurity of brilliant silver, words that clearly relate to the city. As a process, Bradford starts with South LA. After the race riots of the 1990s, the city put chain-link fences almost everywhere. Merchants used those fences as places to hang advertising posters. The artist takes those posters and alters them with more found objects -- detritus from the city. Using collage and decollage, pasting them on the canvas and scratching some away, Bradford creates a new city with these abandoned flyers.
There is an overwhelming beauty to "Bread and Circuses," as well there should be. The gleam of the silver, the delicacy of the swirls, the details of the lines, the energizing color all converge here to create a spectacle. You can't help but feel satiated by the work. And yet with the sad block lettering peeking through, you also can't help feeling like someone's hiding behind the curtain.
The CAM exhibition could have been a hundred times the size to show off Bradford's ingenuity and skill. As is, though, the three paintings provide an essential look into the artist's mind view. It should not be missed.
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