Mark Bradford’s latest solo exhibition, titled “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” is a captivating showcase of his paintings inspired by The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestries. Originally displayed at the Fundação de Serralves in 2021, the exhibition also features a site-specific wall painting that envelopes the entire gallery space, as well as an adaptation of his previous work, He would see this country burn if he could be king of the ashes (2019). Through this immersive experience, Bradford delves into the themes of predation, destruction, and the hope for rejuvenation in times of crisis.
The Hunt of the Unicorn tapestry cycle, believed to have been created in the Netherlands during the 15th century, intricately tells the tale of hunters and hounds on a quest to capture and eventually kill a unicorn. Often interpreted as an allegory for Christian theology’s crucifixion and resurrection, these tapestries portray a vivid, dreamlike world teeming with various plant and animal species, where predator-prey relationships thrive. Bradford meticulously reconstructs this landscape using layers of paper and caulk, employing his signature techniques of sanding, tearing, and oxidation. By dissecting the historical significance of this beloved European artwork, Bradford draws parallels between our contemporary world and the tumultuous Dark Ages, shedding light on marginalized figures who often receive little support and solace during times of turmoil.
Fascinated by the Medieval tapestry’s role as a means of storytelling employed by the powerful to shape historical narratives—an art form he compares to old-school comic books—Bradford reimagines the display format. Instead of traditional European châteaux, his somber and immersive installation takes center stage at Hauser & Wirth’s Monaco gallery. The tapestry paintings adorn walls covered in a monumental site-specific paper work, while black globes with bleach-burnt continents hang from the ceiling, casting celestial fragments of natural light emanating from a skylight above. Varying in size, these globes allude to the diverse prisms of social, political, and economic circumstances through which individuals perceive the world.
In addition to these remarkable installations, Bradford includes a site-specific work titled The Map of Hell (2023) in the stairwell leading to the main gallery space. Inspired by Botticelli’s illustration of the Divine Comedy, this artwork traces a metaphorical journey akin to Virgil’s descent into the depths of hell. Bradford frequently tailors his artistic responses to the specificities of the exhibition spaces, enhancing the immersive and experiential nature of his work.
The exhibition’s title, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” derives from a traditional spiritual song sung by enslaved Africans in the United States during the 17th and 18th centuries. By intentionally leaving the ‘I’ in the title anonymous, Bradford deliberately withholds answers, explanations, or prescriptions regarding the socio-critical impact of his work. Instead, he allows the piece’s material and thematic resonance to evoke powerful emotions and provoke thoughtful contemplation.