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Keeping it moving

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

Keeping it moving
L.A.-based artist Mark Bradford now has slowed down to chronicle his provocative work (Photo: Bruce M. White)

Author: Fredrik NilsenL.A.-based artist Mark Bradford now has slowed down to chronicle his provocative work

Author: Bruce M. WhiteL.A.-based artist Mark Bradford now has slowed down to chronicle his provocative work

Bleached by the Los Angeles sun and processed with solvents and abrasives in his studio, worn street posters, discarded newspapers and sidewalk debris are among the raw materials that artist Mark Bradford collects and incorporates into his collaged images, which he regards as paintings.

At home with paradox, Bradford creates paintings, but seldom uses pigment. A visual artist, he also harnesses the provocative power of words — whether as titles or elements in his compositions. He adopts the timeless, formal clarity of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, traditions that transcend the ruckus of daily affairs, in alluring paintings that explore the chaos of urban life in America and his experience as a gay black man.

He approaches art “not as something that exists outside of the day-to-day,” the lanky, 6’8” Bradford told an audience at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, where he is the subject of a fascinating large-scale museum survey — his first. On view through March 13, the show then travels to major museums in Chicago, Dallas and San Francisco. Organized by the Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University, the exhibition presents more than 35 of Bradford’s works from 2000 to 2010 and it is accompanied by fully illustrated catalogue.  

Like an archeologist, Bradford, 49, sifts elements of urban life and in layered compositions stirs what is overlooked, concealed or forgotten.

The recipient of a 2009 MacArthur Foundation Award (known as the “genius grant”), Bradford lives and works in Los Angeles, where he earned his BFA (1995) and MFA (1997) from the California Institute of the Arts.

As a boy, Bradford helped out at his mother’s hair salon in South Central Los Angeles, which is now his studio. He became familiar with the small, square-shaped endpapers used to straighten the hair of African American clients.

Cheap and readily available, these endpapers became the material of the earliest works in the show — luminous, softly toned grids. Some suggest parchment or veil-like Cubist compositions of Paul Klee.

Bradford’s grids gradually expanded in size. The billboard-scale “James Brown is Dead” (2007) memorializes Brown with a monumental mural. The words in the title occupy most of the 24-foot-long image, which has the aura of an Egyptian frieze; but they are obscured by other elements, such as the picture of a keyboard or fragments of posters, that vie for the viewer’s attention. While honoring the musician, the work is a meditation on how what matters to some people can be invisible to others.

Bradford evokes the public persona of RandB sensation and sex symbol Teddy Pendergrass, who died in January, in his multimedia installation, “Pinocchio Is On Fire” (2010). Its title suggests the torment of a flawed son who, like the wooden puppet in the fable, cannot please his father.

The viewer enters a long, narrow passageway covered with a black-and-white grid illuminated by a row of overhead spotlights. Speakers on both sides play a recording of Nancy Wilson singing her 1963 hit, “Tell Me the Truth.” The multimedia seduction induces a desire to slow down and saunter to the soulful, syncopated ballad and indulge in a private runway stroll.

In the next gallery, a mesmerizing three-minute video, “Niagara” (2005), shows a man (Bradford’s neighbor Melvin) doing just that — but not in private. Instead, wearing traffic-cone orange shorts and a tank top, he strides sinuously down a somewhat seedy street, and makes a dance-like leap over a break in the pavement. The video takes its name from a 1953 movie that is most notable for Marilyn Monroe’s undulating walk as she moves away from the camera. Melvin’s figure recedes into the scene, a ready-made grid of metal awnings and streetlights accented by orange posters and a traffic light on yellow, as if in warning.

In his catalogue essay, “New Yorker” writer Hilton Als does with words what his friend Bradford does with materials: he explores the tension between a man’s inner life and outer image. In a searing fictional monologue, Als imagines Pendergrass in a nursing home after the 1982 auto accident that paralyzed him. At one point, the narrator recalls a boyhood conversation with his grandmother, who tells him that a metaphor is “just the Lord’s truth, dressed up as someone else.”

Bradford renders gritty social and personal realities in riveting visual metaphors that bristle with alternating currents of revelation and concealment.

He also has a humorous touch. “Crow” (2003, 2009) is a taxidermist’s crow. With its beak stuck in a gallery wall, the work is a wry visual comment on the fate of the Jim Crow laws. African American roles as sports stars are invoked in an image of a sneaker and a basketball coated with black papier-mâché. Showing off his tools is the lighthearted “Bag of Tricks” (2009). Coils of string — his drawing tool of choice — and shredded strips of paper tumble out of a drawstring sack, its netting forming a playful grid.

Coordinated by Helen Molesworth, the ICA’s chief curator, the survey is installed in a loosely chronological order that lets viewers discover the cumulative power of Bradford’s works.

In several images that Bradford made over a three-year period, grids suggest topographic maps and aerial photographs. Ten feet high and 16 feet wide, “Black Venus” (2005) translates a Google map of Baldwin Hills, a wealthy African American neighborhood in Los Angeles, into confetti-like rectangles. Another large painting, “Scorched Earth” (2006), is an image of absence. Outlines trace places where homes once stood in a part of Tulsa populated by prosperous black families. In 1921, a white mob burned down more than 30 blocks in the neighborhood during a race riot that left 300 African Americans dead.  

Possibly evoking post-Katrina New Orleans, a third painting, “The World Is Flat,” (2007), has the cracked and mottled surface of an image that has been submerged in water.

Named for a New Orleans neighborhood of modest shotgun houses near the Mississippi, “Corner of Desire and Piety” (2008) is a wall-sized grid formed by 72 copies of a poster that announces propane delivery to FEMA trailers. Scarred with paint, each is like a tile in a mosaic that echoes the grid-like trailer parks that sprang up in the wake of Katrina.

On the opposite wall is “Mississippi Gottdam” (2007), which takes its title from a great protest song by Nina Simone. A subtle grid overlays this thickly textured image of an immense tidal surge. Its shimmering waves are constructed from street debris and silver wrapping paper. Balancing the classical order implicit in a grid with the transforming turbulence of nature, Bradford’s painting is a majestic image of rebirth.