The summer is slipping away, and with it Hammer Museum‘s latest round of exhibitions: Mark Bradford’s “Scorched Earth,” and Hammer Projects by Mary Reid Kelley and Joseph Holtzman which close on September 20 (Bradford and Holtzman) and September 27 (Reid Kelley). The exhibitions bring issues of media, feminism, homosexuality, race, AIDS, and culture into focus.
There is a distinct magnetism to Mark Bradford’s 2015 series “Scorched Earth.” Like modern Monets, the large-scale, mixed media pieces unveil their literal layers as one approaches. They beg more than the average eight seconds spent looking at most museum works, inviting the viewer to come close, explore the striations of carved paper, canvas, and glue, scanning the landscapes, and coming to to know the body of work. Each gash, each valley, each stray speck of blue paint or painter’s tape pulls the viewer, making her want to touch, or rather roll across the surfaces as one would a grassy knoll. In the absence of touch, the viewer can settle for pacing past the works, gazing up at them, letting the eye try to see each detail both from a distance and up close.
Because it takes time to observe the details and compositions, the pieces become meditative, allowing the viewer to hone in on a small surface in the universe for a moment. Hammer’s wall text,as well as a background of Bradford’s life and work, outlined so eloquently in Calvin Tomkins’s June 2015 “New Yorker” article, clearly sets the intention.
Though the intention is of the landscape, the surface of the body and the organic molecules and forms that make it, it is also about pressing social issues such as AIDS; the race riots in 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Los Angeles in 1965 and 1992; and the additional misconceptions caused by the media’s fevered and misinformed reporting of these and other events.
Bradford’s audio and text installation, “Spiderman” (2015), deals with some of the same themes. In joking about bringing back the Jheri curl, Michael Jackson’s ghost and Bubbles, Eazy-E and AIDS, Jim Crow, sex changes, and race, Bradford broaches deeper issue of black identity, stereotypes, the miss-association of AIDS as an African American disease, pop culture, and media.
Drawing from the history of black comics such as Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor, Bradford satirizes their crass, homophobic humor. What the listener may not realize– standing in the dark room lit by only a spotlight cast on the space where the comic would stand and the projection of the text version of the accompanying audio flashing on a screen–is that Bradford performs the act as a transgender comic, challenging the notion of masculine identity, as well as the body and cultural conformity.
Bradford continues his commentary on the misrepresentation of the AIDS (as well as Ebola) epidemic in the media in “Finding Barry” (2015). In the piece, he carved through the 29 painted layers of Hammer’s lobby wall to form a map of the United States. Inside each state is a statistic, reporting often outdated numbers of people with AIDS in each state.
Painter Joseph Holtzman continues Bradford’s theme of homosexuality and AIDS in his painting ” Robert Offit Dying with AIDS” (1989). One of his abstract cultural portraits, it is the individual dirge counted on a national level in Bradford’s “Finding Barry.” The AIDS epidemic seeps through the works, reminding the viewer take a moment to mourn and remember too many lost and forgotten.
Holtzman’s other portraits pair cultural icons, like Jane Austen and Mary Todd Lincoln, with personal icons such as Holtzman’s mother. But what is perhaps most interesting about the exhibition is the space.
Employing Holtzman’s interior design techniques, the green felt walls and heavily-patterned sofas and chairs make the viewer feel is if she is entering a three-dimensional self portrait of the artist. A purple line, raised about a foot from the moulding in the gallery, follows the arc of the curved ceiling, emphasizing the cathedral feeling of the space. The sofas invite the viewer to come in, sit down, spend time with the works, creating an immediate intimacy between artist and viewer, akin to the one created by Bradford’s works.
Like Holtzman, Mary Reid Kelley‘s films move paintings beyond the frame. Her shorts transforms Greek myth into modern feminist commentary on “the role of women, sexuality, language and art historical tropes.” In her black and white films, cartoon-like lines transform the human body (as well as the sets) into exaggerated forms and background. They are evidence of Reid Kelley’s training as a painter, her narratives like paintings come to life.
Reid Kelley acts out new versions of the myth of the Minotaur and an unpublished text by Victorian poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, transferring historic texts into contemporary spaces (For example, the chorus, three women evoking three crones become three beauty queens: Miss Barley, Miss Millet, and Miss Spelt. They chant on the sidelines of an “Athens Baptist Church” volleyball game in Reid Kelley’s Priapus Agonistes (2013) and Swinburne’s Pasiphae (2014)). Her videos are an amalgamation of painted worlds, script, and flashing text, allowing the viewer to slip between watching the drama unfold and getting lost in the images and text displayed on the screen.
The three exhibitions form a dialogue about race, sexuality, media, and culture that’s not to be missed.
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