My practice is décollage and collage at the same time. Décollage, I take it away; collage, I immediately add it right back. It’s almost like a rhythm. I’m a builder and a demolisher. I put up so I can tear down. I’m a speculator and a developer. In archaeological terms, I excavate and I build at the same time.
— Mark Bradford, Art21 interview, “Politics, Process & Postmodernism”
When Jacques Derrida died in 2004, I was studying his work in a visual culture class at NYU. His obituary in the New York Times treated deconstruction like a nerdy revenge: nobody can understand deconstruction. My professor at the time pointed out that, at the least, we should try.
When I’m working with students and teachers in museum education, I’m often looking for theoretical sparks as ground where conversations around artworks can sprout. More specific than ‘analysis’ or ‘unpacking,’ deconstruction points to the paradox of simultaneous destruction and construction. Something new can emerge only when space is created for it by undoing other systems, an unraveling process Derrida sometimes described as de-sedimentation. Pulling in ideas from deconstruction can be useful in developing a close read for looking at objects, a way of looking that keeps us from trying to pin down a single interpretation for an artwork.
Some artworks are particularly fruitful for engaging in this process. Mark Bradford frames his work in this language of breaking down and building up—“décollage and collage at the same time.” In Bradford’s studio practice, there is a real physical enactment of the deconstruction of a text, where the text is his own social and physical environment: he pulls objects out from their contexts, leaves gaps, pulls them together into a new format, erases certain patterns, and constructs new ones. De-sedimentation and sedimentation. Décollage and collage.
Bradford’s approach opens up some new ground for our work with educators in the MCA’s Teacher Institute this year. What new spaces emerge when we are willing to apply this process to our work as makers, thinkers, and teachers? How can we engage with Bradford’s process, not only visually, but as a mode of social engagement? Are we willing to complicate, rather than more smoothly define, our use of dialogue as educators and artists?
This is what I’m working on right now: looking at Bradford’s work and words and considering their relevance to creative educators. His approach is complex, embedded in his rich personality, and approaches social hierarchies in a way that sparks new questions when translated to teaching. These questions aren’t easy to answer. At the least, we should try.
— Annie Heckman, teaching artist and MCA artist guide. Bradford’s work is the focus of this year’s High School Teacher Institute, Break Down/Build Up: Change through Dialogue in Teaching and Making, and will be featured alongside Joseph Cornell’s work in the Elementary Teacher Institute, Everything Talks to Everything Else: Joseph Cornell Unlocks New Modes of Dialogue.
Photo: Mark Bradford: Potable Water, 2005. Billboard paper, photomechanical reproductions, acrylic gel medium, and additional mixed media; 130 x 196 inches (330.2 x 497.8 cm). Collection of Hunter Gray. Photo: Bruce M. White.