Bird’s eye view of breakdowns

Sebastian Smee

THE WASHINGTON POST – There is a striking moment in OJ: Made in America, Ezra Edelman’s brilliant, Oscar-winning 2016 documentary about the OJ Simpson case, when the pilot of a news helicopter hovering over a chaotic scene at Simpson’s house can be heard saying to his colleague, “OK, we’re going to pull up high”.

Right now, as images of brutality and unrest crowd our screens daily, those words feel weirdly resonant.

They speak, first of all, to the nature of media coverage, which can so often feel like short-lived voyeurism.

But they speak even more to privilege: to the comparative luxury of being able to float high above the mess on the streets, or to turn off the TV, or to retreat to the suburbs.

The pilot’s words speak to phenomena like white flight and to the silence of the so-called “silent majority”.

ABOVE & BELOW: Black Venus (2005); and A Truly Rich Man is One Whose Children Run Into His Arms When His Hands are Empty (2008). PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

Scorched Earth (2006)
Bread and Circuses (2007)

Aerial footage, most of it from helicopters, was the signature motif of OJ: Made in America. Again and again, between courtroom scenes, sports reels and talking heads, the documentary showed crucial moments in the history of Los Angeles from high above.

Not just the indelible, surreal white Bronco chase scene, but other, graver moments: the 1992 riots sparked by the acquittal of police officers accused in the Rodney King beating; Operation Hammer, a brutal crackdown by police on South Central Los Angeles that lasted years; the 1965 Watts riots, which led to the deployment of 16,000 law enforcement personnel and mass arrests.

The overhead footage of all these episodes seemed charged by two opposed qualities: prurient curiosity and a kind of politically charged detachment, bordering on pointed neglect.

Americans wanted to see (the car chase, the plumes of smoke, the unfolding disaster, the whole lurid melodrama).

But they wanted even more to keep their distance – “to pull up high”.

Some particularly infamous helicopter footage of the 1992 riots showed a truck driver, Reginald Denny, being wantonly brutalised, with police nowhere in sight.

(Denny was white, the four assailants were black – and so were the four people who saved his life.)

Voicing distress and dismay, news reporters bore witness from on high not only to a horrific crime but to the fact that the LAPD motto – “To Protect and to Serve” – had been abandoned, a part of the city foreclosed upon. To many Los Angeles residents, it was as if the police themselves decided to “pull up high”.

Inevitably, the aerial footage in OJ: Made in America also chimed with news coverage of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. (Who can forget the handcrafted signs pleading for help?)

And it called to mind, too, the image of United States (US) President George W Bush peering down at the devastation through a window of Air Force One.

It is almost impossible, without art, to hold so many images in your head, let alone to try to make sense of them. Which may be why I am thinking more than ever these days of the art of Mark Bradford.

Bradford, 58, grew up in Los Angeles. The breakthrough works he made between about 2004 and 2008, which helped him on his path to becoming one of the most acclaimed artists alive (he has featured on 60 Minutes and represented the US at the Venice Biennale; his work is displayed in museums all over the world), were not exactly aerial views. They were abstract, and they engaged with the history of 20th-century abstraction.

But they also deliberately evoked bird’s-eye imagery – from satellites, planes or helicopters – of sprawling cities.

Bradford has left and returned to Los Angeles a great many times. On most of those occasions, he did so by plane. He knows what the city looks like from above.

But he didn’t need to get on a plane to know, like the rest of us. Aerial footage of Los Angeles is so prevalent – and so charged – that it dominates our collective idea of the city, and of South Central in particular.

Bradford’s works of the 2000s synthesise two opposing visions. Even as they conjure aerial views, they have a visceral, proximate, almost tactile quality. This is the direct result of Bradford’s materials and methods.

Just as the feel and texture of Los Angeles’s neighbourhoods are impossible to grasp from above, the tremendous physicality of Bradford’s art can be hard to grasp in photographs. But it comes across powerfully in person.

Although his works resemble paintings, they are actually made from layers of scavenged posters, coloured paper, caulking and ropes. As the surfaces were built up in these works, underlying wrinkles became bony ridges.

Bradford wanted to find out how his materials, most of which he got at his local Home Depot, would behave under duress: how malleable they were; how much they would change and how much stay the same.

So he bleached and soaked the papers; he sanded and scraped them, as if wanting to imbue them with greater stress, more layers of life. He ripped into these palimpsests, attacking them with sandblasters and high-pressure water hoses. Or he pulled the ropes out from under layers of paper, leaving ravage d gutters behind. The process allowed colours from earlier layers to emerge, evoking the way past traumas continually return, like the ghost child in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, as we stagger, unseeing, into the future.