Mark Bradford and Kara Walker at Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
September 10 to October 17, 2009
530 W. 22nd Street, between 10th and 11th avenues,
New York City, 212 929 2262
While the work of the two African American artists Mark Bradford and Kara Walker might not have much in common at first sight – the former being a figurative artist and the latter more of an abstractionist – this show makes a case for it.
The most obvious common denominator is that both artists favor paper as an expressive material. Walker became famous for transforming the 18th and 19th Century practice of cutting paper silhouettes into a contemporary medium. Bradford, after years of installation work, has turned his focus increasingly towards collage. They both occasionally use text as a compositional element and also their choice of palette – Walker preferring stark black and white contrasts and Bradford large areas of white with occasional color accents- complement each other effectively.
What is more important, however, is that both artists share the ambition to create works that examine cultural and social issues, albeit in very different ways.
Walker draws from history. Exploring hereditary societal and cultural conflicts, her work is one of the most daring and acerbic comments on persisting racial problems. Her most prominent works are complex tableaux which address identity and gender issues, in particular those experienced by African-American women. Her visual vocabulary is rooted in stereotypical Black Americana, mined in part from objects she found in flea markets. In contrast, Mark Bradford studies his more immediate, contemporary surroundings. He collects everyday urban trivia. His latest works involve billboards, posters, and magazines, for example, which he gathers in his neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. Like Walker, Bradford has an affinity for dense information. His compositions are made of multiple layers, which he often distresses and abstracts through the act of sanding and scraping. Under this treatment, the posters and signs become abstracted layers of color. He literally aims to peel away the layers of information to see what is hiding underneath. To Walker and Bradford alike, density of visual information is an aesthetic choice that mirrors the mutliple layers of reality and complexity retrieved from subject matter.
In this restrained, elegant exhibition, works by the two artists are interspersed, allowing the audience to repeatedly compare the artists side by side. It is Walker, however, whose selection of works comes as a bit of a surprise. Rather than mounting another of her signature wall installations, Walker has selected panels in which her cutout figures are mounted on painted backgrounds, as well as paper sculptures and two videos featuring silhouette puppets for this show. While her oeuvre by nature is much more provocative and controversial than Bradford’s, who strives for compositional harmony and a sense of ethereality, this exhibition shows a subdued version of her bite. It almost seems as if the usual tone and physicality of her work was adjusted in order to bridge the gap between the two artists. Though her efforts on panel are far from disenchanting, they lack the immediate impact of her black and white tableaux. Rather than being enveloped by a whirlwind of gruesome images of rape and lynching scenes, the viewers will find themselves studying more harmless depictions of ghosts and figures.
While the pairing of two of this gallery’s most prominent artists makes for an interesting comparison, it is hard to overlook that it is the artists’ careers that have just as much in common. Both rose fast in the art world. They both have already exhibited extensively in the museum circuit, including solo shows for each at the Whitney Museum of American Art, NY in 2007 (Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love and Neither New Nor Correct: New Work by Mark Bradford). They are both in their forties, (Walker was born in 1969 and Bradford in 1961) and they both have received a so-called “genius” awards from the MacArthur Foundation, Walker in 1997 and Bradford this year.
Though Walker enthusiasts will appreciate the opportunity to see some of her works in the gallery, they will find themselves craving more. Ultimately, the exhibition is a showcase for Bradford, who as the lesser known of the pair, succeeds in holding his own and leaving a solid impression.