Venice, Italy — The artist Mark Bradford is roughing up the American Dream.
He's excavated the dream, dug it up and examined its origins at the behest of the Baltimore Museum of Art, which is presenting the U.S. Pavilion at the world's most prestigious art fair, the 2017 Venice Biennale.
The Biennale often is described as the Olympics of the Art World; this year, 86 nations are vying for the coveted Golden Lions, which will be handed out today to the top national pavilion and top individual artist. BMA director Christopher Bedford chose the 55-year-old Bradford, whom he calls "the most important artist living today" to represent the Stars and Stripes.
The building that houses the U.S. Pavilion is modeled on Monticello. Like Thomas Jefferson's Virginia plantation, the miniature version in Italy has a portico with a pediment roof and is fronted by Doric columns. Unlike it, trash has been strewn deliberately on the adjoining grounds, cigarette butts are ground into the pavement and gravel is heaped part way up the walls. Step inside, and the plaster is torn away in chunks, exposing the underlying infrastructure.
"All of these government buildings are symbols of democracy," Bradford said Thursday at a press preview of his work. "I was thinking about Monticello, and seeing as how I'm African-American, I was thinking about slaves and slave cabins."
Bradford intentionally leaves portions of his artwork unfinished. There are pencil lines on the walls, cords left dangling.
"I wanted people to see my struggle and uncertainty," he said. "I think at the moment we all feel vulnerable and we all feel uncertain, and we have to embrace that."
He thinks that the turmoil implicit in his work will resonate with residents of American cities attempting to recover after their own periods of turbulence.
"Mark has made the U.S. Pavilion look like Baltimore," noted Cara Ober, the founder of the magazine BmoreArt, who was in Venice for the Biennale.
His exhibit is called "Tomorrow Is Another Day," an ironic reference to the final line in Margaret Mitchell's stereotype-laden "Gone With the Wind." The Pavilion is filled with two sculptures, six paintings and the video. All but the video were created specifically for the Biennale.
"This building feels so much about governance," Bradford said. "How many times have we entered government buildings that look like this? Under government buildings there are supposedly mysterious tunnels and hidden rooms. I played with that, and I played with the idea of the Middle Passage. I conjured up something in which I dug out that which is submerged beneath all these government buildings."
Bradford's work will travel to the BMA once the Biennale ends, opening to public view in 2018.
In the first room, a gigantic black-and-orange blob ("Spoiled Foot") protrudes from the ceiling, forcing visitors to either crawl on their hands and knees like infants or to hug the walls as unwanted intruders.
In the next gallery, a massive pile of black and gold knotted and twisted ropes called "Medusa" uncoils to the ceiling almost as if it were an independent life force. Among other things, the sculpture is a direct reference to the coiffures of African-American women, at times a controversial issue in the black community. Until recently, U.S. servicemembers were banned from wearing hairstyles like cornrows, twists and dreadlocks, while pressure to conform prompts some black women to go to great lengths to present straightened hair.
Bradford, 55, came to the art world late, after spending many years working in his mother's hair salon.
Bradford's exhibit makes a statement about race relations in the U.S., and this week he made that statement to the more than 400 reporters who had passed through the small pavilion during the three-day press preview.
His work made the same statement to the British man who stopped a reporter after hearing her American accent and inquired if she was involved in putting together the U.S. Pavilion. "I heard that's it's particularly strong this year," the man said, "and that it's creating an interesting conversation about race and politics with some of the other pavilions."
And Bradford's work made his statement to such influential folk as attorney and law professor Anita Hill, who attended the press preview, and to such celebrities as supermodel Naomi Campbell and the Academy Award-winning actor Adrien Brody, who were guests at an exclusive dinner Thursday night thrown by Bradford's gallery.
Campbell later visited the U.S. Pavilion; photos of her and Bradford were posted on Facebook.
Hill, who made headlines in 1991 when she accused her former boss, then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment, wrote an essay about Bradford that is included in the exhibit catalog. She first met the artist in 2014 when they participated in a talk at Brandeis University. The artist and feminist icon quickly became close.
"He's like my nephew," Hill said. "He's an exceptional artist who takes a very formalized structure and makes it more vibrant and accessible for people like me. It's up to those of us who care about art to move it to the next step of activism.
"I look at his 'Medusa' and wonder how we ensure that women who are sexually assaulted have a voice. How do we ensure that the women in his mother's beauty shop can make their voices heard?"
The BMA is co-sponsoring the exhibit with Brandeis' Rose Art Museum, which Bedford headed before coming to Baltimore, and with the U.S. State Department.
Kelly Degnan, the charge d'affaires ad interim representing the U.S. Embassy in Italy, spoke at a $5,000-a-plate black tie gala on Wednesday night where guests dined on sea bass and risotto made with vegetables grown in the hotel's garden.
She said she admired Bradford "not just for his canvases, not just for the mixed media and installations he has created but also for the work he does for the disadvantaged and at-risk populations. He gives people on the margins a way to integrate into society."
Bradford is known for launching social service projects in the cities where he works. In Venice, he has championed Rio Tera dei Pensieri, which provides job training and other services for about 100 current and former inmates each year.
Bradford helped the inmates set up a storefront on a high-traffic street in Venice where they can sell the cosmetics they manufacture from plants grown inside the prison and the handbags made from recycled banners used during Venice's many festivals. The inmates' wares also will be marketed at museum shops worldwide — including the BMA.
"When we met Mark, we were going through a hard time," said Liri Longo, who directs Rio Tera.
"We'd been through years of economic crises, and we were wondering if what we were doing still made sense. He came to the prison many times and the inmates began to realize that they were of value to somebody like him, who could do whatever he wants and live wherever he wants. When he said he wanted to do a project with us, that gave us new energy and brought us new strength."
Ghizlane el Bahraoui, 33, bustled around the tiny shop, showing customers the wares she helped create. Two years after she was released from prison, she said that Rio Tera — and the storefront that Bradford helped the group build — were giving her self-esteem a badly needed boost.
"There are no jobs in Venice," she said. "But I can make money now with the work I do. I feel like a human being now, and not a cast-off prisoner."
Bradford takes his responsibilities as a citizen very seriously — as seriously as he takes his artwork.
"This exhibition starts with a collapse," he said. "I take the urgency of the world, pull it into my studio and add my layer of hope to it. Eventually, it became this project."