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Head, Heart, Hand: Ohio State University Students Respond to Blues for Smoke 2

Fri, Dec 20, 2013

Maurice Stevens, Associate Professor in the Department of Comparative Studies at the Ohio State University, recently held a course that directly engaged students with our exhibition of Blues for Smoke. He divided the class into groups and we're sharing their responses. Today's entry comes from the Sage Group discussing the work of Mark Bradford. For more background on this series, head here.

Sage Blog: Mark Bradford

At the beginning of October, our group first met at the Wexner Center for the Arts to view the Blues for Smoke exhibit. During that trip we each chose two pieces of art that we were attracted to. After gathering together to discuss the pieces, we determined that it was important that each of us feel connected in some way to the piece and that we could each see something intersectional about the art. 

After some conversation, we chose to engage with the Mark Bradford piece entitled The Idea Would Never Travel. This work of art is on a very large canvas.  The left side of the canvas is entirely black. About mid-way across the canvas there is a diagonal line from top left to bottom right where there is a break and the black paper that covers the left side has been sanded away on the right side to reveal layers of signage that all carry the same message but oriented in different ways. The phrases ‘promise land’, ‘sober living’ and ‘men and women’ are legible upon close examination, as well as the repeated appearance of numbers 5, 7, 0, presumably a phone number.  We spent some time viewing the piece together and determined that we would each like to write our own separate responses and find some background information on Mark Bradford.  Subsequently, we created a shared document where each group member could post his or her response and findings. 

The members of our group had an array of reactions to the piece. A number of interpretations were focused on the difference between the almost entirely black left side of the piece, and the words and phrases on the right. This divide was described as a ‘fault line of intersectionality’; it drew comparisons to both urban sprawl and white flight. Additionally, some saw the words and signs as emerging from the black, while others took a less hopeful reading and saw it as a black hole or void threatening to take over the whole canvas. The words and phrases on the canvas also represented differences in opinions. Some members of the group felt that they were unclear or could represent uncertainty while others felt that they were hopeful and still others felt they might be suggestive of something unknown to the audience.

Through our research on Mark Bradford, we learned that he likes to work with found materials from his surrounding environment. He often removes signage from fencing which has been erected during the demolition of buildings in his neighborhood. These signs are advertisements for different things such as barber school, child custody representation or information on how to start a sober living facility and so one. In this way, Bradford believes the signage can tell us about what is happening in anyplace at a particular time (citation: PBS). His work is described as both collage and dècollage. Bradford says about his use of layering: "It’s about…tracing the ghost of cities past. It’s the pulling off of a layer and finding another underneath" (ICA Boston).

The Idea Will Never Travel displays the layers and multiple identities that every city and individual possess. As each layer is removed, we gain a new element of understanding about that particular place or person. The beauty of that is that we each see and interpret those elements differently. Therefore, our group chose not to come to a definitive conclusion about the Mark Bradford piece as a whole. We were each able to find our own meaning; regardless of whether our individual interpretations bent toward a hopeful or negative outlook. 


Art21. (2007). Mark Bradford. PBS.

ICA Boston. Mark Bradford. The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston.

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