Mark Bradford

As I mentioned in my prize-unboxing post, part of the reason I went to SFMoMA was to see the Mark Bradford exhibition. I didn’t really know what to expect since it’s impossible to really understand this work until you see it. But it was supposed to be good. And it was. Huge collages with lots of texture which both invite and reward inspection at a number of viewing distances.

I wish I could touch them.

Bradford’s work definitely falls into the category of artwork which is compelling enough on its own that it doesn’t need a lot of explanatory text. Information on media and method is nice to learn but the concepts are also simple enough that I can see Bradford-like art projects* being a great activity to do with kids.

*Using Elmers glue, found paper, and twine.

It’s also interesting to see this exhibition so soon after seeing Walker Evans. Evans has a number of photos of advertising posters which are layered upon years of accumulated advertising. As new images are added and as things age and weather, the textures and unexpected combinations of images which develop present found art to someone with Evans’s eye. Bradford takes this concept a step further by provoking the textures and combinations intentionally through layering printed material on top of printed material and then sanding away portions to reveal the layers.

Because he works with the materials of his community, he ends up creating collages which draw upon and comment on his experiences. I’m not sure I agree with the way that he’s presented as a black artist since his work isn’t as overtly black as say Kara Walker’s, Chris Ofili’s,* or Fred Wilson’s is. While he references black themes in his titles, I get a much more Los Angeles ghetto vibe from him in a way which makes his art speak for any non-white lower-class group in the West Coast.

*Yes, I know that Chris Ofili isn’t American. There’s a reason I said “black” instead of “African American.”

Heck, his art is pretty Los Angeles just in general. LA is a weird weird place were anyone and everyone can reinvent themselves. There is history there. But it’s papered over with fake history* which has taken on a life of its own to the point where the fake history is legitimately historical too. This rewriting of history is embedded in the geography of the street grid and highway right of ways as neighborhoods are redeveloped/destroyed.**

*Olvera Street.

**Chavez Ravine and South Central.

That much of Bradford’s work references the city grid only confirms my sense of his work as belonging to LA. To be fair, he is able to reference other places—I really liked his Katrina/New Orleans piece in particular. But to drive through LA is to see fragments of past versions of the city peeking through the latest veneer—mini Ruwedels glimpsed from a Gohlke point of view, maybe at 70mph if you’re lucky, but more likely through the frustration of stop-and-go traffic.

I don’t know whether LA is gigantic Bradford collage or if Bradford’s collages just happen to encapsulate my sense of what Los Angeles is. But his work has me wanting to read City of Quartz now.

Gorilla Girls II

It’s difficult for people to name female artists. In general. Which is why the challenge to name three female artists is still disturbingly difficult for many people. One of the fantastic things about photography is that it’s much more balanced in terms of presenting women as accomplished artists in the medium—to the point that most female artists people think of now happen to be photographers.

At the same time, all is not well. While I was viewing the Francesca Woodman exhibition and thinking about how her work should be required viewing for any teen girl taking self portraits and posting them to flickr/facebook, it occurred to me that every female photographer that I could think of is most-noted for taking photos of people.* And this is certainly true for every female photographer whose work I’ve seen featured in a museum.

*I’d say portraiture but some people define this term to be strictly posed photos. What I’m really talking about are portraits, candids, and street portraits. Obviously, when we get into the street, there’s a huge continuum from posing strangers on the street to just using people as a compositional element. The dividing line for me is probably Garry Winogrand’s Women are Beautiful.

I’ve been thinking about this even more since Eve Arnold’s passing when I noticed that the resulting obits talked about how she was one of the few female photojournalists but noted her most-notable work to be her portraits of Marilyn Monroe.

After further deliberation, I’ve got the following list of art-museum-worthy (as deemed by museums) photographers whose notable work includes a large portion of photos which aren’t about people. I’ve gone ahead and listed what areas they specialize in too.

It’s a small list.* I cannot help but wonder why this is. Whatever the reason is, it certainly isn’t a good one.

*If anyone has suggestions for someone I missed, please let me know.

My gut reaction is that we tend to approach women artists the same way we treat other non-white artists—as representative of, and speaking for, their minority group. So, as a result, the work which gains the most acceptance in museums is that which explicitly offers—or which can be framed to offer—a different, female, perspective. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging this perspective* but the idea that it’s the main way for women artists to be presented is completely wrong.

*God knows we need it.

That kind of thinking is not only insulting and pandering but it trivializes artists whose work isn’t about their minority perspective.* Either they get shoehorned into a group to which they do not belong or the get saddled with the “token” label.

*Bringing to mind the Ruth Asawa exhibition at the De Young which kept trying to make it about her being asian and/or female when her work has nothing to do with any of that—unless you think the beautiful mathyness of it all is because she’s asian.

Minority

It’s been one week since the Gold Cup Final and the stories have, thankfully, reverted to questioning what’s wrong with the USA National Team and projecting how good the Mexico team could become. For a few days, it seemed possible for the event to be used by nativist or conservative commentators to make a political point.* While it wouldn’t be to the extreme that occurred in France after a “friendly” with Algeria, a great post on the Soccer Politics blog makes the connection and sounds the warning about extrapolating too much from a single event and small subset of the fans in attendance.

*That such a point would involve admitting to watching soccer is probably why it did not get made.

At the same time, another post on the same blog, casts the entire rivalry into the politics of decolonization and immigration. I don’t quite buy this either. If anything, the USA-Mexico rivalry is about minority identity rather than politics.

Identity question #1: To whom does soccer “belong”?

The USA is a great at absorbing and sanitizing other cultures—think Mexican food (Chevys, Taco Bell, Chipotle), Cinco de Mayo, and the most interesting man in the world. We haven’t taken soccer. Yet. But we’re trying.

That soccer is identifiably non-American makes it something which minorities in this country can use as shorthand for their culture. A large part of the USA-Mexico soccer rivalry stands in for the struggle over American appropriation of Mexican culture to the point where it almost seems like there’s been a line drawn in the sand: “Hands off our fútbol you pinche gringos.”

Identity question #2: Which team does a Mexican-American support?

To-date, most of them support Mexico. Even my 3rd-generation wife supports Mexico.* The typical American thing to do is to support Team USA first, ethnic background second, then the big-name team of your choosing third. Sometimes the second two are switched** but, except in the case of Mexico, it’s almost always USA first.

*Somewhat to her surprise. We were watching the Gold Cup Final and she just found herself rooting for Mexico.

**I support Spain over any of my ethnicities. Though, in my defence, I am part German.

I suspect that a large reason why Mexican-Americans tend to support Mexico is because of the answer to question one. Soccer is currently part of Mexican culture and so, enjoying soccer is an exercise in enjoying being Mexican.

However, another reason is that the US team does a horrible job at getting Mexican-American players (or, really, latinos of any sort) into the system. I think Jose Torres is the only one right now. It’s not like those players are playing for Mexico either, there’s just a huge untapped player pool and a huger untapped market for new fans. When the US national team has a Mexican-American star who my wife’s generation can identify with, I suspect a huge number of them will start supporting the US team instead.

Identity question #3: What does it mean to be a USA soccer fan?

It’s not enough for most US soccer fans to root for victories. It’s all about playing the game correctly, behaving correctly, and not letting down the rest of the group by dong something stupid. Games always have a bigger picture issue about dictating the place of the game in US society. Since rivalry games bring out the worst in everyone, the US-Mexico game is probably the most stressful.

On the field, it’s important to show that the US is not a joke of a team. If the team is competitive, it’s easy to explain to non-fans why we watch and helps to grow the sport.* If the team sucks, our sanity is questioned by everyone and there’s an existential crisis regarding the future of soccer in America.

*It’s not clear how much many of us want to actually see the sport become popular here. There’s a certain hipster vibe where we enjoy the exclusivity by obscurity and complain when things become mainstream during the World Cup.

Off the field, it’s even stranger. We feel like we have the responsibility to show that we’re not stupid Americans and that we actually understand world soccer. We have to simultaneously embrace the passion of the game without fully succumbing to it lest we become the bullies that we are in other fields. And we have to accept and enjoy (and even prefer) Spanish-language broadcasts and majority-Mexican crowds because, without them, there would be no market at all for soccer in America.

Gorilla girls

The original question is very close to the one I keep at hand for whenever I hear someone suggesting that the art world isn’t sexist. I challenge people to name three non-photographer female artists since most of the famous female artists people know of are photographers and I want to force them into the other arts.

When I first came up with the question, I was shocked to realize that the three most-famous female artists were all married to famous men. I suppose it’s at least refreshing that none of them changed their names.

My answer, while flip, does have a point beyond the wise-assery. Are those three women famous because of their art, or did they get a boost from their famous partners? And does it matter?