In a recent virtual presentation for UNC Chapel Hill’s Department of Art and At History, Doctor Vance Byrd, Presidential Associate Professor of Germanic Languages & Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, explained the multidimensionality of the panoramic works created by artist Mark Bradford. Bradford’s work focuses on the conception of Blackness in America, environmental destruction, the AIDS epidemic, and historical reformation.

Byrd explained that Bradford works with easily accessible items that he considers “Humble Materials.” He buys and finds industrial papers and fabrics from which he can extract dye, as opposed to traditional forms of purchasing materials. His material specificity is multidimensional in that he is resisting the commercial processes of obtaining materials and setting a new example for someone of lesser means. His refusal of commercial materials is reflective of his disdain for the American consumer culture.

Byrd’s discussions focused on the cycloramas and panoramas created by Bradford, specifically Pickett’s Charge. Pickett’s Charge is an abstract 12-foot high and 45-foot long installation that wraps around a cylindrical room. The work was based on Paul Philippoteaux’s The Battle of Gettysburg, a cyclorama that depicts the failed infantry assault led by the Confederate Army, however, Bradford’s resembles that of a 1950’s décollage rather than a glorified battlefield. Bradford drew inspiration from the gargantuan work and modified a copy of the original to illustrate America’s tumultuous history.

Bradford’s rendition of the Gettysburg Cyclorama rejects the narrative of defeat depicted in the original and raises a new conversation surrounding the volatile undercurrent of United States history. Byrd articulated that Bradford uses multiple layers of a cut and torn surface texture to represent the reformation and influence of Black history at Gettysburg. Bradford uses a vocabulary of violence to injure the surface to create trenches and scars that reveal the past layers underneath. These sedimentary-appearing layers serve as a conception of time that shows the before and after of Gettysburg, with Bradford’s hand metaphorically and physically tearing through time.

In his talk, Byrd referred to “landscape” as a verb and noted that the emerging performative aspects of landscaping, directly noting Dustin Klien’s projections on the Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, VA. Byrd furthermore classified Bradford’s work as performative landscaping because of the destructive repurposing of materials in his creative process.

Similar to the Gettysburg Cyclorama, viewers are unable to see the full work at once; they must walk around to see it all. Bradford has used this to his advantage by restricting and granting the viewer privilege to see Pickett’s Charge. The concept of historical reformation is further echoed by the viewer’s inability to see the whole work at once, like how you are unable to see the full breadth of history at once.

Bradford’s ability to infuse abstraction with socio-political and historical context has made him the center of attention in the contemporary art world. Vance Byrd’s current book project, Listening to Panoramas, explores the influence of sonic and visual panorama shows to determine how the past is remembered and politicized. Pickett’s Charge is a masterpiece that exemplifies the misrepresentation and glorification of a turbulent history through the juxtaposition of the cyclorama reimagined.

Updated 2/13: Here is a link to the full video: