An Examination of Dwight Eisenhower’s Legacy – Mark Bradford

“Los Angeles is like San Diego’s older, uglier sister that has herpes” shouted Justin Halpern, comedic author of Shit My Dad Says. But what is it about Los Angeles that warrants such extreme views? Los Angeles revels, like all metropolitan urban sprawls, in polarisation within its inhabitants. Yet in Los Angeles this is soaked in the mythological and coercive outlook of the Golden State – California. From the dizzying heights of Hollywood and Beverley Hills, where anyone can make it and all you gotta do is… to the seething underbelly and ganglands of South Central, Los Angeles is an entire world unto itself.

In December 2013, Los Angeles based painter Mark Bradford’s solo exhibition Through Darkest America By Truck And Tank at White Cube Gallery, London presented a series of paintings based on the topographical and geopolitical landscape of Los Angeles. A landscape divided and fractured beyond unification in part by the introduction of the National System of Interstate and Defence Highways by Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. Through Darkest America By Truck And Tank is a title in Eisenhower’s memoirs where his experience as an army officer crossing the country in 1919 as part of a military convoy on the Lincoln Highway; the first trans-American road. During the second world war, while Supreme Commander of the allied forces, Eisenhower gained an appreciation of the Reichsautobahn system. This was the first national implementation of Germany’s autobahn network as a necessary component in the country’s national defence system allowing resources to efficiently and rapidly be moved across the country. Eisenhower recognized that this system would provide similar capabilities for military supplies and troop deployments in case of a national emergency or foreign invasion of the US. However with the highways came a dilemma – where will they bisect through towns and cities and what will the ramifications of this be, to be frank, the last note probably did not even warrant an answer, only hindsight could reveal it.

“Take the 10 freeway in Los Angeles in the 1950’s for example” says Mark in an interview with Susan May, artistic director of White Cube, “it was planned to cut through the property of a wealthy woman called Doheny who lived in West Adams, which is an old part of Los Angeles near USC (University of Southern California). She got the commissioner to move the way it went around her property, which meant it would cut through the poor black neighbourhood.” This is pre-civil-rights movement and shows the further fracturing of racial tensions in Los Angeles that is echoed by the process of Bradford’s work.

Bradford utilizes paper and found materials that denote site-specific references to areas that he examining. The layering of these materials and the subsequent removal in order to create sculptural collages that are then weathered and altered, normally through an act of aggression to create distress and channel that social-political themes that are referenced in his titling. Therefore, Bradford’s work is multifaceted, both visually abstract and politically loaded as a metaphorical vehicle for further contemplation. In his works Constitution (I – IV)(2013) it appears, from a distance, to show dark gridded squares that have been eroded by violent tears and bleaching allowing a deep crimson to permeate through, and areas of stained white to stand out like a toxic spill on top of the canvas. These gridded squares emulate the city structures on GPS system or google maps, the black and red and white- armed with the prior information regarding freeway 10- could show the racial segregation in neighbourhoods. However, as one gets closer to the work the gridded squares transform into text. The work then shifts dramatically in its discourse- is it now showing urban decay and degradation of the ‘poor black neighbourhoods’? According to an LA Times article in 2007, the 18th Street Westside Gang are active south of 10 Freeway. Further research on the gang reveals, according to Special agent George Rodriguez, “as one of the most violent street gangs and one of the most prolific in the United States.” They have spread internationally and are now known to be operating out of 120 US cities as well as being located in Canada, England, France, Germany, Lebanon, Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

From this then it is easy to conclude that Dwight Eisenhower’s legacy, illuminated in this case through the work of Mark Bradford in Through Darkest America By Truck And Tank, is ruptured and failing. America was never invaded during World War II or in the near 70 years since. But now as we move heavily into the digital age, with military conflicts utilising increasingly guerrilla warfare tactics and opposition becoming unmanned it seems the highways will never be used for their intended purpose of a defence against invasion, so where does that leave the prolonged social effects it has rooted?