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At Venice Biennale, American artist engages social issues

In this photo taken in Venice, Italy, Wednesday, May 10, 2017, artist Mark Bradford gestures as he talks about his show titled ''Tomorrow is Another Day'', outside the US pavilion. (AP Photo/Colleen Barry)

VENICE, Italy (AP) — Mark Bradford has his feet in two worlds: social engagement and producing art. Often they mix, as at the 57th Venice Biennale where he is representing the United States.

His Biennale show, “Tomorrow is Another Day,” examines both allegorically and autobiographically what it is to be marginalized, part of a trend at the Biennale of artists engaging with communities on the fringe.

But it is more than that for Bradford. Alongside his Biennale show, the Los Angeles-based artist is launching a six-year collaboration with a Venice non-profit that provides employment opportunities at a local prison. His project, an extension of programs in Los Angeles with foster children and engagements in other cities where he’s produced art, involves helping female inmates make artisanal products to sell at a Venice shop.

While some artists may opt for the bubble where art speaks for itself, not Bradford.

“As artists, we have citizenship in the world. We should be at the table with the politician, with the doctor, with the lawyer. When did we lose our citizenship? No. They need us more than ever now,” Bradford said this week during previews ahead of the contemporary art fair’s Saturday opening for its six-month run.

Towering at nearly 6 foot 8, Bradford happily engaged the line of tourists waiting to see his show inside the U.S. pavilion with white columns in the Venice Giardini. “That is how I don’t end up isolated,” he said.

Bradford breaks down the barriers that often separate artists from their public, a gift that his partner Allan DiCastro says comes from having spent years working with his mother in a hair salon in South Central Los Angeles.

But his show also pointedly seeks to break down borders. Instead of grooming the forecourt to the Palladian-style pavilion, Bradford left piles of gravel that were part of his worksite to prepare for the show. It gives the feeling of neglect, and also makes the yard indistinguishable from the Giardini’s graveled walkways.

“A ruin. A work site. Abandon. You can’t tell where the American pavilion starts, and the gravel stops. I wanted to kind of erase that national border. It just kind of bleeds in. It’s water,” Bradford said.

It is an apt metaphor as politicians on both sides of the Atlantic seek to close borders. And while the rancorous global discourse has given his project an urgency, it did not inspire it.

“I have been mining these territories longer than November. This idea of people in need. This idea that things are out of kilter. This is not new,” Bradford said.

That the show has political significance and speaks to the experience of African-Americans is clear from the inclusion of an essay titled “Speaking Truth,” in the catalog by Anita Hill, whose testimony about sexual harassment during Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings to the U.S. Supreme Court made her a target of public wrath. The two met when Bradford was doing a show at Brandeis University, where Hill teaches. She joined Bradford in Venice for a public conversation marking the pavilion’s unveiling.

In her essay, Hill discusses about “the dominant narrative that casts African-American women as untrustworthy and of little political or social value.” She also cautions that “we should not try to make Mark into an activist; he is an extraordinary artist who, through the power of his abstractions, offers us an understanding of the multilayered perspectives of communities marginalized by location and identity.”

Bradford’s show is entered from the side, the servant’s entrance, not the central domed rotunda. The show is a journey from oppression to protection, from recognition to hope, that one of the exhibit’s curators, Christopher Bedford, described as “a really unusual collision of autobiographical and abstraction.”

The first room creates a physical experience, pushing the view to the periphery with an imposing bulbous sculpture, while the second creates safe places for the artist as a young boy, evoking Bradford’s mother’s hair salon in large paintings created from purple-black end papers used for permanent waves and a paper sculpture representing Medusa’s head as a hiding place.

The central rotunda, where the artist evokes slaves who built similar plantation buildings, leads to a formal gallery hung with three cosmic paintings, representing the artist’s moment of arrival, success.

The final room contains a video of a South Central Los Angeles teen named Melvin whom Bradford befriended sauntering down the street. Co-curator Katy Siegel says Melvin’s cinematic trajectory out of the pavilion and into the future is a sign of hope.

Bradford “believes not only in the vulnerability of marginalized people but in the agency of vulnerable people. Sometimes in the art world, people are living in the bubble in the fantasy world. Everything was great, everything was fine before Trump was elected,” Siegel said.

“Mark does not believe that. … He says, ‘I’ve always had a Trump in my life.’ So he knows you cannot just give up or be nihilistic about politics. But he offers an alternative, which is not conventional electoral politics: ‘Be local. Do something. There is someone right in front of you who need something. Pay attention to what is going on in your community. And believe in your own capacity to do something.’ “

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