Once upon a time, the dynamism of a city could be measured in the vitality of its street life, the bustle of crowds frequenting shops, cafes and theaters. In such places, walking was an art form. The poet Baudelaire strolled the streets of 19th century Paris as a boulevardier, not to get anywhere but rather as 'an observer and philosopher." While it's still possible to do that in cities such as San Francisco, New York and New Orleans, those are the exceptions in a land where Houston-style sprawl is the norm, and where the last outposts of street life are found in the slums and ghettos, places where the boulevardiers are dopers, dealers, hustlers and all too many bored, aimless kids. This is the chosen terrain of Mark Bradford, William Cordova and Robin Rhode, artists who take their inspiration from the often bleak and littered streets on the seedy side of cities the world over, places where such neighborhoods have pronounced similarities regardless of where they are located. Johannesburg, South Africa, performance artist Robin Rhode appears in photographic and video pieces that at first glance resemble the sorts of things adolescents do in places where the streets are their principle playgrounds. For instance, in his photographic series Catch Air
he seems at first glance to be doing some acrobatic loops on a skateboard, but look again and it soon becomes clear that the wall behind him is actually the street itself and the skateboard path is actually drawn in chalk. Although his surfer-like posture suggests motion, and the skateboard is real, Rhode himself is actually lying on the street mimicking the classic moves of a skateboarder in this series of still photos that suggest a kind of kabuki theater of street life, a Charlie Chaplinesque pantomime of globalized adolescence. Similar techniques are employed in other series in which he seems to be building or modifying vehicles that are actually drawn in chalk. It might just be a little too cute if not for the subject matter itself, the bleak streets of the human hive, those places our political leaders mostly prefer not to talk about. In that context, his work seems more transformational.
William Cordova, a native of Peru, has led a peripatetic existence since moving to this country as a child, so it probably helps that his preferred medium, paper, is relatively light in weight. But it's not just any paper " Cordova prefers paper with a history that he can recycle into something else, so his World Famo Paintings installation of 100 ink and graphite drawings appears on the former pages of a vintage 1939 art-history book.
The images themselves are as deftly drawn as New Yorker cartoons, yet enigmatic in their focus on found objects such as old speakers, automobile tires, tennis shoes and other discarded consumer items that end up in limbo on city streets. Wholesailers, Retailers and Bullshitters is a large painting featuring a small drawing of a stripped, graffiti-covered truck surrounded by a sea of gold leaf. The gold suggests the coveted bling of the mean streets, but it also recalls the elaborately gilded cathedrals of Cordova's native Peru as well, functioning in both contexts as an ironic benediction.
Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford also employs found paper, and here his massive Black Wall Street collage painting initially suggests a supersized relic of abstract expressionism, or maybe a Google satellite map gone horribly awry. The title refers to an area in Durham, N.C., once famous as a hotbed of black entrepreneurship, but this, like his other map paintings, may really represent dreams that, like the paper from which they were cobbled, became orphaned at some point. Here, in a gesture of curbside shamanism, the artist transforms orphaned objects into containers for new dreams " maps of a psychic geography where the only boundaries exist in the imagination.
In his massive collage painting Black Wall Street, Mark Bradford commemorates a neighborhood that was known for black entrepreneurship.