Mark Bradford at the Hirshhorn Museum:

Tearing into Our Civil Wars

By Shantay Robinson 


At no other time was the country as divided as it was during the Civil War. The Union soldiers from the North fought for the abolition of slavery and the Confederacy fought for states’ rights to uphold the institution. “The Battle of Gettysburg” was the battle that ended the war, and it was fought for three days in July of 1863. The Union army won the war, but the principles they were supposed to defend fell short of what, in reality, would be the fate of the country. The romanticized notions of what the Civil War stood for are what we read about in textbooks and history classes when in reality the fight didn’t end slavery. One hundred and fifty-four years later, black people in this country are under similar duress and the country is divided once again because African Americans have still not been granted their full humanity.

In Mark Bradford’s 400-linear foot homage to these very divided times, Pickett’s Charge, an appropriation of the Civil War cyclorama, he rips, tears, glues, overlays, manipulates billboard-sized reproductions of scenes from Gettysburg and asserts a new narrative.

The images taken from the cyclorama are distorted in their reproduction and only slightly recognizable. But I think that’s the point.  As two Union soldiers are depicted in their dark colored uniforms, their position in the Civil War is today still not realized. Black people in this country are still treated as less than human. The war was to be integral to the livelihoods of the black population, as Abraham Lincoln ordered the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. But following the end of the war enslaved people, especially in the west, didn’t hear about their freedom until June 19, 1865.

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Although Pickett’s Charge as an exhibition shadows the circular shape of the Hirshhorn, each panel is a distinct artwork. One particular panel in Pickett’s Charge bears a striking resemblance to the cyclorama, as you can see the likenesses of soldiers and the landscape where the final battle was fought, it’s torn and weathered by the artist. Like the old trope that the Civil War was fought for the emancipation of the enslaved, the artwork has weathered with time, revealing a background of abstract textures representing alternative narratives much like the truth.

To create this work, Bradford sent the images he acquired from the internet to a printing company to make them billboard size and then applied them to the canvas.  As an artist who paints with paper, he creates “sculptural paintings.” Each of the Pickett’s Charge paintings has between five to ten layers of paper on them. This layering allows for the uncovering of narratives in his work. Weaving the new materials like rope and paper with the appropriated images, Bradford is intermingling the past and the present, creating a storyline, that in the current state of our divided country, doesn’t appear distinct from the past.

While this work is abstract, it represents the ever-present disjuncture in our country, the one in which many lives were lost and the one we are still losing lives to. The connections made here should clarify our progress as a country. When black lives are used as pawns, no one is free. Pickett’s Charge embodies a conversation that we need to have—a conversation we’ve been having for almost 400 years. The humanity of our country relies on extracting meaning from this work and others that alert us to the atrocities that plague our disunion. Until the narratives we tell ourselves are inclusive of all people, the war will never be over.

Pickett’s Charge opened in November 2017, and has been extended to 2021.


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