Taking their cue from wall taggers, streetwalkers and creatures of the night, current Fabric Workshop and Museum artists-in-residence Pae White, Mark Bradford and Carlos Avendaño may all use the city differently, but they find common ground in the street.
Los Angeles-based White’s site-specific project “ Summer XX” (2012) traffics in mourning, memory and your ability to speak Spanish. Moved by the death of a mentor, White uses the cavernous space at the Fabric Workshop to transform some simple graffiti from a wall near her studio in L.A. into an epitaph writ large. Stretching the length of the wall, the phrase “HASTA LA MUERTE” forms the locus of a matrix of crimson yarn. Each woven letter stretches across a black wall, its tension held in perfect balance by hundreds of threads anchored to the opposite wall by small metal hooks. As you pass through the sculpture, your perspective shifts radically; strings align and diverge, cross and blur. The effect is emotionally stirring: a promise written in ligaments, a pact made in blood. “ Summer XX” offers us the visual schema for a tenuous connection to something almost out of reach: It thrums with life even as it points toward death.
Where White’s sculpture envelopes the viewer, Los-Angeles based artist Mark Bradford’s large-scale wall installation, “Geppetto” (2012), sits coolly at a distance. Two thousand newsprint pages have been pasted flat on the wall. Their charcoal tones combine to create the illusion of a slate that seems less optimistically blank than grimly evacuated of content. Bradford’s titular nod to the penniless woodcarver who created Pinocchio is mystifying. (The fact that there’s something wooden about the piece seems not to be the connection Bradford hoped to make). As he so often does, Bradford has arranged the sheets here layer upon layer, but Geppetto lacks the toothy texture of his previous paintings. The sheer scale of the pattern dwarfs any subtle gradation of tone on any individual page; the newsprint roundly resists three-dimensionality, even if it seems to be precisely what it needs. If Bradford—like Geppetto—might be considered a master craftsman when it comes to handling the mixed-media materials with which he often works, then he seems to flounder in the papery thin world newsprint in “Geppetto.”
The best thing about Bradford’s exhibition turns out not to be part of the show at all. “2 Videos,” a video collaboration between Bradford and Philadelphia-based Carlos Avendaño, was originally conceived as a separate exhibition for the Fabric Workshop’s New Temporary Contemporary space next door but was relocated to the same floor as Bradford’s “Geppetto” due to remodeling. This is a lucky strike. The videos serve to activate the otherwise impassive “Geppetto,” establishing the newsprint pages as so many gray squares of pavement on the street, and then taking us for a walk. Bradford’s “Niagara” (2005) shows the back of a young man in a white tank and yellow shorts walking jauntily away from the camera. As he recedes, his body takes up less of the screen and we see more of his surroundings: a chain-link fence to the left, a busy street to the right, cracked pavement and litter underfoot. The block may be gritty, but the man in the yellow shorts treats it like a catwalk; as he struts his stuff, we’re drawn to follow him down the street.
Avendaño’s “Brenda” (2012) offers a more glamorous take on urban exhibitionism. Taped in 1998 during a Halloween street bash on Santa Monica Boulevard, Avendaño’s slow-motion black-and-white footage of drag queens unfolds with the voluptuous vamp of old Hollywood. Familiar tropes of seduction are on shameless display: batting eyelashes, glistening lips and exotic furs. George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” heightens the schmaltz, but also the magic.
Avendaño’s flirtatious drag queen, Bradford’s departing flâneur and White’s promise to endure until death join together to form a melancholic chorus: “Come hither,” they seems to implore us, “come back, never leave.”
Through late summer. The Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1214 Arch St. 215.561.888. fabricworkshopandmuseum.org