Critics’ Picks

Mark Bradford, Pickett’s Charge (Dead Horse) (detail), 2016–17, mixed media on canvas, 11' 7" x 50'.

Washington, DC

Mark Bradford

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Independence Avenue at Seventh Street, SW
November 8–November 12

Wars are often predicated on a surrounded visual and politics: We aggress when we are circled in. Outward expansion conceivably mitigates reoccurrences of enclosure. Still, borders remain. Histories get written. And, ultimately, what gets remembered is determined by who is surrounded or paints the picture as such.
Mark Bradford is attuned to all this. He finds something “troubling” about the vainglory of the American Civil War, particularly Pickett’s Charge—the battle on July 3, 1863, that swung the tide for the Union North over the Confederate South. That historic battle occasioned Paul Philippoteaux’s panoramic painting The Battle of Gettysburg, 1883. Bradford opted not to see Philippoteaux’s cyclorama at Gettysburg National Military Park while prepping the series “Pickett’s Charge,” 2017, his eight-painting commission casing the entire wall of the third-floor, inner-circle gallery. Knowing Bradford, these aren’t actually paintings, at least not in the traditional sense.

Bradford’s (dé)collage treatment of material emerges in Pickett’s Charge (Two Men). A pair of towering soldiers on horseback, blown up and pixelated, emphasize the artist’s sleight of hand—Bradford employs billboard-size reproductions of the Philippoteaux’s nineteenth-century painting, distorting scale, slanting expectations. Smaller soldiers appear elsewhere on the panel, but winding striations of kernmantle rope lacerate their figures, hurling them into abstract reams of ravaged paper. In a panel titled Witness Tree, bits of paper dangle off the canvas, swaying over blue skies higher up in the frame, concealing men in battle down below. Trees still dot the battleground in Gettysburg, trees that Bradford gives weight here through fissures and folds.

Ever troubled by tradition, itself a formality to hide histories, Bradford tethers disruptive symbols to the warmongering legacy of cycloramas. The gouged surface of Pickett’s Charge punctures the idyll, uncovering an accretion of secrets and sediments. But this exhibition is not so much about the hidden as it is about what happens at the hem, a gathering place for forgotten materialist histories that sever and warp history proper.