Kara Walker, 10 Years Massacre (and its Retelling) #2, 2009, 84 x 72 inches, mixed media, cut paper & acrylic on gessoed panel
Showing together at Sikkema Jenkins through October 17, Mark Bradford and Kara Walker present distinct but overlapping bodies of work that resonate with the confidence of two accomplished artists in full stride. It is a rambling exhibition that features large and small scale paintings, text-based collages and a sculpture by Bradford, and large scale paintings, small collages and two new videos by Walker.
Mark Bradford is known for building huge paintings, or more accurately, collages out of cultural detritus -- layers and layers of paper from billboard ads and street fliers. He uses heavy twine to form complex webs that resemble topographical layouts for neighborhoods. These layers are painted over, torn away, sanded through to arrive at surfaces that have a deep history of their own which mirrors that of their original source -- the inner-city landscape. In this show, we see only one of the really big pieces, the magnificent Red Painting which is more than 12 feet long and dominates the first room of the gallery. In the side gallery, Bradford has made a group of 4 by 5 foot elaborations on canvas -- same palette, same basic triangular grid configuration as Red Painting. In addition he is showing a group of very small collages on paper that feature advertising slogans. The small canvases are indeed extremely beautiful objects, but at first, because of their smaller scale they begin to look precious, a bit too controlled, and so very tasteful. What's missing is the obsessiveness, the edge, the sheer magnitude and scope of the big pieces. On second viewing however, I began to see and appreciate them in their own right as highly charged, and quite elegant chunks of physicality -- like focused details of the large pieces, and definitely holding their own. In his only 3-D piece in the show, called Stax, Bradford builds a 12 foot high pile of papier mache volleyballs, contained by a triangular-grid mesh that echoes the paintings. It is monumental and funky in its presence, and a welcome shot of the artist's sense of humor.
Kara Walker shows a large group of small collages and cut paper pieces that feature the same silhouette figures, scenes and situations that have characterized her work. What is new (at least to me) are three large paintings (also technically collages) titled 10 Years Massacre (and its Retelling), in which Walker departs from her usual narrative tableau space, and incorporates her imagery into a fragmented painting space with rich black surfaces. These are knockout paintings -- powerful visual statements that do not rely primarily on narrative for their power, and have gutsy, visceral weight that we haven't seen in Walker's work. This visceral quality is followed through in the back room of the gallery with two new videos -- gritty, handmade affairs featuring her silhouette puppet figures re-enacting scenes of unspeakable brutality and violence from America's racist history. In their directness and simplicity, these are gripping works that powerfully convey the depth of human tragedy in the events and attitudes they portray.