Erase, Tear, Gouge, Replace: Mark Bradford Excavates the Present

June 27th, 2020  |  Published in *, June 2020

Installation View of Pickett’s Charge, Hirshorn Museum of Art, 2017

What to write about Mark Bradford? His ascent into the art world seems to border on the magical.  His story makes for a perfect Hollywood movie if Hollywood was inclined to turn its lens to artists more often, which it does not.

Mark Bradford is African-American, born and raised in South Los Angeles, in the same area where riots first erupted after officers were acquitted on charges of use of excessive force in the Rodney King beating (which was videotaped by an onlooker in 1992.) In 1991 when Bradford was 30, he started his BFA at the California Institute of the Arts. How powerful the specter of the 1992 riots must have been on him.  One thousand buildings were destroyed at a cost of at least one billion dollars. How could politics not seep into his artwork from his psyche in his first year immersed in art school? The reader may not know that Cal Arts was founded by Walt Disney and is one of the powerhouse art programs in the nation.  Seemingly this was a great fit for Mark and he also earned an MFA from Cal Arts in 1997.

An important question posed by ART21 who videoed Bradford was: “Do you think of your work as political?”  Bradford replied: “An artist has a choice to be as political or apolitical as anyone else who’s making choices. So, I don’t think an artist is necessarily apolitical if he or she doesn’t make overtly political work. But so much of contemporary art is engaged in the ideas that are circulating in the atmosphere, in the press and the media, and oftentimes that influences us. So, it seems comfortable to me to have that bleed into my work. For me, the subtext is always political. You look at a sign and you realize it belongs to popular culture. But on another level, the sheer density of advertising creates a psychic mass, an overlay that can sometimes be very tense or aggressive. The colors shift; the palette becomes very violent. If there’s a twenty-foot wall with one advertisement for a movie about war, then you have the repetition of the same image over and over: war, violence, explosions, things being blown apart. As a citizen, you have to participate in that every day. You have to walk by until it’s changed.” This brief description is crucial to seeing what influenced Bradford which I will discuss at length when I begin to unpack the working methods and imagery in his enormous, aggressive paintings.

Seminal to Bradford’s thinking and the physical thrust of his art work is the fact that his mother ran a beauty salon in S. LA, and though Bradford’s family moved to a largely white neighborhood in Santa Monica when he was a child, his mother still maintained her business in the old neighborhood. So Bradford had regular contact with the clientele of S. LA since he got his hairdresser’s license after high school and went to work at his mother’s salon, living in white Santa Monica and commuting to work in black S. LA. Later, when he began painting, he repurposed the “permanent-wave end papers,” used for perming a hairstyle client, and he often singed the edges of the end papers, incorporating them alongside advertisements he pulled down from walls and fences in his neighborhood. His lived LA life became his lived LA art.

Digging further into his past he states: “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. As a child I actually wanted to be an archaeologist, so I would dig in my backyard. When I was six, I was convinced that I could probably find a dinosaur bone there, but after about a week I realized that it was only in particular places that you find dinosaur bones. It was not like my mother stopped me. She was very good about allowing me to do, as she called them, “projects.” Later, when he was in high school, his mother asked him to make the signs for the prices at her salon, so he taught himself calligraphy. So his early adventures in art making used signage and text, which naturally filtered, into his early painting, such as “Corner of Desire and Piety” of 2008.

Corner of “Desire and Piety” 2008.

It is logical that Bradford’s art works are so large since his neighborhood’s papered-over walls are naturally large.  Bradford is replicating the visual scale in his art works of the walls he strides by, his art works stripped and gouged like the walls that have tattered and torn posters and adverts put up, taken down. Further, Bradford, as an unusually large man, can have a different idea of scale that most artists since his height and arm reach would be so much greater than most artists’.

As I write about Mark Bradford, I immediately think of an African American painter who was born near the Cincinnati area, Sam Gilliam. The Louisville native makes paintings that are abstract, which in the 60’s was a radical act for a black artist. With a rich history of examining the African-American experience, artists who became famous before Gilliam included Jacob Lawrence, Romaire Bearden, Carrie Mae Weems, William H. Johnson. It is odd to think of the pigeonholing, but African American artists seemed to have been expected to make figural artwork examining or celebrating the black experience.  Along comes Gilliam who made purely abstract paintings – like his white contemporaries – and the art world was shocked and also took notice.  Gilliam also unmoored the canvas from the strictures of the canvas stretcher. His huge, draped, color-drenched canvases were inaugurated in about 1965 and impacted art making thereafter. In 1972, Gilliam represented the US at the Venice Biennale, the first African-American artist to be selected for this prestigious exhibition.

Bradford is certainly an heir to the achievement of loosening the parameters of art making for black artists to include abstract vocabulary. And of course the French artist Jacques de la Villeglé who mined the posters of Paris for his richly textured and visually fractured imagery is of historic importance to expanding the materiality and processes of art making.  Bradford takes, tears up and re-collages potent flyers from the ‘hood in a manner not unlike de la Villeglé. For Bradford, his purposeful collecting of what is called ‘merchant posters’ advertising cheap transitional housing, foreclosure prevention, food assistance, debt relief, wigs, jobs, DNA-derived paternity testing, gun shows and quick cash and legal advice for immigrants, child custody and divorce all speak to political messaging for the poor and disenfranchised that he then richly imbeds in his art works. So he has it both ways – he is abstract and he is political.

“Mississippi Gottdam”

There is a natural rhythm and scale to Mark Bradford’s art works. And while adverts are vertical, he assembles them in horizontal grids onto his personal urban landscape – the visual field of his enormous mixed-media works.  They can’t be formally called paintings to my mind, though I suspect various writers call his large works paintings. They are mixed media works, and while there is some paint, Bradford is truly a brilliant collagist and assemblagist.

Mississippi Gottdam from 2007 shows his gift for décollage and collage. The artwork has a lush rhythm; its palette is taken from the thousands of found sources from which it is comprised. Colors peek out – comic book reds, greens from the Incredible Hulk. There are between ten and twenty layers to his art works with shellac stabilizing each layer, more or less. There is such beauty in this work; it shimmers from the sheer volume of printed material he acts upon with such muscular dexterity. I suspect his working methods are so varied; it would be difficult to account for all the materials and methods minute to minute.

His achievements are staggering so here are but a few: ‘Tomorrow Is Another Day,’ is his searing exhibition for the US Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale which traveled to the Baltimore Museum of Art. His ‘Pickett’s Charge,’ is a monumental commission for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Bradford’s ‘We The People’ of 2017 is a site-specific painting comprised of thirty-two panels containing the entire US Constitution – which was commissioned for the new US Embassy in London. Mark Bradford: End Papers opened Mar 08, 2020 and continues to Jan 10, 2021 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

–Cynthia Kukla

Leave a Response