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Darkness exposed: Mark Bradford shines the spotlight on racist comedy

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Darkness exposed: Mark Bradford shines the spotlight on racist comedy
Derek Jarman, in front of his projected film “Blue.” Derek Jarman (English, 1942–1994), 1993, Digitized 35mm film. (Photo: Photo: Courtesy Basilisk Communications/Zeitgeist; Photo: Liam Daniel. © Basilisk Communications, Ltd.; Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Through July 30, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is displaying Mark Bradford’s heart-wrenching video installation “Spiderman.” The six-minute piece offers the visual of a red spotlight on the floor accompanied by an audio track and running text of Bradford’s script. In the audio he portrays a black transgendered comedian, and though there’s humor present, the routine isn’t meant to be funny.

On the web

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Inspired by the homophobic ranting comedy sets of the 1980s, the piece provides a stark commentary on the role standup comedy has played in normalizing racist and sexist vernacular. Bradford specifically evokes comedian Eddie Murphy’s controversial “Delirious” routine from 1983. The artist saw Murphy’s act in person and wanted to adopt the use of hard humor into an art piece.

Jokes about Michael Jackson’s jheri curls, late rapper Eazy-E’s battle with HIV and the AIDS epidemic within the black community place the timeline of the text, while reminding current audiences that these issues of discrimination live on. The absence of a visible figure is a commentary in itself. When jokes about race and gender take the seriousness out of the issues, a black transgender person like Bradford’s character becomes invisible on the world stage.

Two views of exclusion

“Spiderman” is presented in tandem with Derek Jarman’s film “Blue,” also a first-person account of the AIDS crisis. This script is less outward facing, framed as diary-based comments about the artist’s terminal illness and failing eyesight. While the audio rolls, a static screen of French artist Yves Klein’s patented blue hue is projected on the wall. Jarman refers to the color blue as “darkness made visible,” a reference both to his loss of eyesight and loss of hope. The two pieces in this MFA show showcase both the intimate, personal side of exclusion and the way that misinformation and discrimination in society create those feelings. The contrast also highlights the similarities and differences faced by white and black AIDS patients.

Bradford was born and raised in Los Angeles and is known for grid-based painting and collage as well as video installation. He created “Spiderman” in 2015 and the material has become increasingly relevant as legislation on gay and transgender rights comes into question. “The piece is about that moment of hysteria and fear and homophobia in the eighties, and the black community’s relationship to it,” Bradford says in an interview with The New Yorker. “I’m fascinated by these moments when something goes from being taboo to being socially acceptable.”