Looking at Mark Bradford
The Mark Bradford retrospective, currently at the SFMOMA and YBCA, collects Bradford’s best work from 2000 to 2010, representing his primary concerns of a decade.
Born in the sixties and later designated a MacArthur genius, Bradford has stayed in his old neighborhood, Leimert Park in South Central LA. His studio occupies the old beauty salon his mother owned, where a young Bradford painted signs and styled hair.
The exhibit covers the breadth of Bradford’s practice and includes painting/collage/decollage, video/installation, and sculpture. The SFMOMA exhibit is largely focused on the paintings, which are arranged chronologically, clearly following the development of his craft and ideas. The earlier paintings, reminiscent of color fields, are made in layers of billboard paper, photomechanical reproductions, permanent-wave end papers, and other found and mixed media, that have undergone a process of accretion and excavation. The result is a complex, seductive surface, infused with colors that are inherent to the materials. The end papers establish a kind of grid that gives the surface scale and rhythm, while the titles lead into the backstories that anchor the work in events and geography.
The YBCA portion of the exhibit focuses on Bradford’s work in and about post-Katrina New Orleans. The enormous prow of an ark fills the doorway as the visitor approaches the gallery. Bradford constructed the ark, Mithra, with the 9th Ward community in 2008. Pieces of Mithra were reassembled here in Detail to dramatically fill the YBCA space. The installation also includes two large scale paintings and the film, Across the Canal, which documents the construction of Mithra.
In Pinocchio on Fire, a sound and video work created during Bradford’s residency at the Wexner Center, Bradford examines his life through the vehicle of an existential journey, like Pinocchio’s from wood to real boy. Pinocchio on Fire studies the evolving identity of the black male, as influenced by stereotypes, culture, music, AIDS, and drugs, and uses a fictional male character as a surrogate to revisit the 1980’s, when Bradford came of age, a decade full of changes: “It was all new, we were just in it.”  The piece is more difficult to access than the paintings; I needed explanation. Bradford said that he sees Pinocchio as a story of a father creating his son.
The increasing monumentality of later work seems less to do with available capital than with Bradford’s 6’-8” height and long reach. Bradford often begins with an underlying structure. He creates lines by laying down caulk or string. As he adds and subtracts found materials, obscuring and revealing the framework below, the layering forms a thick fabric that recalls the destruction and building of cities over time.
Bradford has found the means to translate the life he lives and his environment in a way that encapsulates his emotions while avoiding the hermetic self-reverential quality of much abstract art. His works’ stunning materiality evokes stories about the making, about struggles, neighborhood economics, tragic and real world events, and the search for identity, finding a balance between personal narrative, cultural history, and the physical world. He builds tension between polarities: the grid and the curve, matter and allusion, the gritty and the beautiful—polarities that make the work distinctly urban, born of the contradictions, juxtapositions, and complexities that define the city.
Looking at Bradford’s work has permanently altered how I see Los Angeles. His singular vision portrays a city I have not seen. This is not the LA of movie stars and fantasy but a tougher city of bruised streets and distressed neighborhoods. Using mundane materials, gathered in the streets themselves for the most part, Bradford depicts, in map-like constructions, a human and intimate LA.
Bradford brings to mind an early Frank Gehry, whose buildings, also born of the circumstances of Los Angeles, were a physical commentary on social structures and conventional readings. Gehry’s use of pedestrian materials, such as exposed studs and chain link fencing, challenged conventional notions of what architecture should be. Bradford’s avoidance of traditional fine art media pushes against the established definition of painting, expanding its boundaries to include direct evidence of material reality. In doing so, Bradford reasserts painting’s relevance to contemporary culture.
The Mark Bradford exhibition was curated by Christopher Bedford from the Wexner Center for the Arts. It has been shepherded to SFMOMA by Garry Garrels, Elise S. Haas Senior Curator of Painting and Sculpture, and YBCA by Betti-Sue Hertz, Director of Visual Arts. It is on view at SFMOMA through June 17, and at YBCA through May 27th.
Christopher Bedford, Mark Bradford (Wexner Center for the Arts, 2010)