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In Venice Biennale runup, Baltimore Museum of Art introduces Mark Bradford

Artist Mark Bradford, who is featured in the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which is being presented by the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Artist Mark Bradford, who is featured in the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which is being presented by the Baltimore Museum of Art. (Joshua White / HANDOUT)

NEW YORK, NY -- If the Venice Biennale is the art world's equivalent of the Olympics, on Wednesday U.S. journalists were introduced to the group that will be representing America and going for the team gold in 2017.

About 40 people, including reporters for The New York Times and Bloomberg, attended a press briefing in Manhattan thrown by the Baltimore Museum of Art. The museum's director, Christopher Bedford, talked about his institution, which has been selected to put together the U.S. Pavilion at the world's most prestigious art show, opening in May.

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Katy Siegel, the museum's senior curator for research and programming, revealed a few details about the planned installation and placed it in the context of American art history.

But there was no question that the marquee attraction was the artist Mark Bradford, the 6'8" former hairdresser who hails from South Central Los Angeles -- and who is arguably the hottest contemporary artist working in America today.

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Bradford told the group that from the beginning, his work has been about giving a voice to the voiceless. It's a mission that he said is more relevant than ever today.

He told the group that liberals and progressives "are grappling with a sense of vulnerability right now, with the feeling that our voices are not being heard. But, I believe we can take back the mainstream. We have to remember that we're a lot stronger than we think we are."

Bradford's work consists of two components that at first glance don't appear to be related, but actually are: his paintings and his social activism.

He creates giant collage-paintings that are growing increasingly sculptural, and that use abstraction to comment upon the realities of living in urban America.

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In addition, he engages in outreach work aimed at bettering the lives of marginalized people. In his native Los Angeles, the artist used some of the funds he received after being selected for a 2009 MacArthur "genius" fellowship to co-found a social service organization that provides job training and other skills to teens living in foster care, and that brings museum-quality art exhibits to underserved neighborhoods.

In Venice, he has embarked upon a six-year project that will help the inmates of the men's and women's prison market wares they create that range from vegetables to cosmetics and tote bags.

Bradford has rented a storefront in Venice where the prisoners' products will be sold, and is working with an architect to redesign the space. He has committed to making monthly trips to Italy. Eventually, the purses and cosmetics could be sold in museum shops worldwide.

After he was selected to represent the U.S. in the Biennale, "I knew I had to find Venice for me," he said.

"I was not comfortable just doing the U.S. Pavilion. I wanted to stand on both of my legs. I knew there had to be something about Venice other than gondolas and all the pretty -- things that are urgent and difficult. Venice likes to cover all the other stuff up. I want to draw attention to it."

Bradford was more circumspect about how he plans to fill the U.S. Pavilion with his artwork, though Bedford dropped a hint that one of the artist's trademark materials -- the end papers he used as a hairstylist -- may be part of the installation.

An observer noted that the artist clearly has feelings about the results of the recent presidential election. Would what he presents at the Pavilion be different if former U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton had won?

"I don't know," he said, adding that his work is still very much in the planning stages.

"It's too soon to tell. I always work until the very last minute."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

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