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.”
Aerial footage, most of it from helicopters, was the signature motif of “O.J.: 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, get out of all this s---.”
Some particularly infamous helicopter footage of the 1992 riots showed a truck driver, Reginald Denny, being wantonly brutalized, 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 L.A. residents, it was as if the police themselves decided to “pull up high, get out of all this s---.”
Inevitably, the aerial footage in “O.J.: 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 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 U.S. 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 synthesize 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 neighborhoods 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, colored 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. (Perhaps he was thinking of America?)
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 ravaged gutters behind. The process allowed colors 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.
Bradford is interested not just in maps and aerial views, but in the ways these and other representations break down, in a sense failing the immediate reality they were supposed to describe. His processes began as additive (layers and layers) but then turned against themselves. Instead of operating as diagrams of a virtuous ideal — the planned, rational city, or a tidily efficient Google map — the resulting works bear witness to the erosion of that ideal.
After the Watts riots, the artist Noah Purifoy made assemblages from burned debris. Similarly, the posters Bradford used in his 21st-century works were kin to the advertisements pasted on plywood barricades and cyclone fencing that had proliferated in the wake of the King riots in 1992. Leimert Park, where Bradford used to work in his mother’s hairdressing salon, was like “scorched earth,” he said, after those riots. The businesses boarded up after looting provided free advertising space.
Just as Purifoy’s assemblages bore witness to anger and anarchy, Bradford’s salvaged posters were stark indexes to poverty, shame, desperation and exploitation. They advertised cheap transitional housing, foreclosure prevention, food assistance, debt relief, jobs, DNA testing, gun shows and quick cash, as well as legal advice regarding immigration, child custody and divorce. These were not, in other words, movie posters or fashion advertisements manufacturing desire, serving globalized commerce. They were “very localized,” as Bradford once said. They were “very clearly speaking to the needs of the people in the community who are passing by them every day.”
In contrast to aerial views or abstract paintings, with their suggestions of aloof indifference, Bradford’s use of these posters feels like front-line reportage. They’re functions of his desire to bear witness. “The merchant posters are straight urgency,” he said; “they exist at ground zero, and they understand the bodies around them, the community.”
Some question what art is for in times of crisis, what it can do and whether it might be a luxury we can’t afford until the crisis has passed. They’re wrong. People always need art, perhaps especially during states of emergency.
But it may be just as important to remember that art doesn’t need you to need it. It will emerge regardless. Bradford’s art, in particular, doesn’t need you to need it. It is rich in connotations. But it also has a secret quality. It’s an alternative, in this sense, to hashtags, social media feeds and daily news reports. It has the same resistance to analysis and interpretation that a mature person has.
Which is why it’s interesting that Bradford’s art doesn’t just extract meaning from a dynamic of near and far, or intimate and aloof. It also creates visual poetry through a dynamic of presence and erasure. The connection might seem odd, but his work of the later 2000s often reminds me of Christo, who died last month, and his partner Jeanne-Claude.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude were famous for wrapping huge public monuments and buildings, including Berlin’s Reichstag and (slated for 2021) Paris’s Arc de Triomphe, in cloth and rope. Like Bradford’s layered canvases, their art evokes a kind of shame, or trauma — a breakdown of the public narrative as articulated by official architecture or sanctioned monuments. The daunting logistics (wrapping the Reichstag!) correspond to the force of our communal desire to conceal something we can’t bear even to name. An original sin. A stinking canker.
Likewise, faced with Bradford’s layers of distressed paper, our eyes are drawn into a state of incomprehension, a black hole of knowing. Their layers, I like to think, express Bradford’s heightened consciousness of the impossibility of certain realities — people’s actual experiences (as opposed to the versions of them presented in the news or on social media or even on placards at rallies) — being represented at all.
We look. We have helicopters, drones, satellites and even art to help us. The technologies get better all the time. But still, we cannot see.
One could say that only when we get out of the helicopter and get up close, walk in the streets, try to relate to and converse with one another, will any of this change. But maybe it won’t change. Maybe those who can will just keep trying to pull up high and get out of all this s---.