Mark Bradford: Making it Real
Nobody is better at mapping the American city than Mark Bradford, the artist whose work is now in the middle of its American tour through Columbus Ohio; Boston; Chicago; Dallas, Texas; and San Francisco (see below for the schedule). You won’t be able to find
your way through any particular place by using his paintings (what else are GPS
devices for?), but you will be able here to see the layers of physical reality
that make up our urban landscapes.
Bradford is a native of Los Angeles, and his work comes out
of that place—literally. For the last
decade, he has been collecting signs and billboards from the streets, bringing
them into the studio to form the basis for his works. He does not start with canvas (one of his
earliest large pieces used a bed sheet), but with those signposts. He layers them on top of each other, paints
on them, rubs them away, adds more, tears some off, and slowly builds surfaces
that are as full of both hidden and overt images as the streets of L.A. Yes, those real spaces, as well as the
streets of every city in America, are full of images and signs, but we usually
don’t see them. It takes Bradford’s
hunting and gathering, his condensation and revelation of what is there, to
make you see what otherwise is spread out all around you.
Helter Skelter IIby Mark Bradford. Courtesy: Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
At times, as in Helter Skelter (2007), the map is one of
madness, as if the whole city is exploding across almost 20 feet of this
scroll-like painting. Faces emerge in
the welter, and you move through the space as if it were a Chinese landscape. The
various kinds of madness that L.A. represses in order to function, from its
tectonic fragility to its mash-up of ethnicities and dependency on technology
to survive, all seem to welter around this painting that, like the city itself,
keeps them in tense check.
Potable Water. Courtesy: Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Another side of L.A. shows up in Potable Water (2005), where
the city’s lifeblood moved up the painting as horizontal stripes, the fragments
of signs bobbing on and in the lines. It
is an image of freshness that bathes the detritus out of which Bradford
buildings his images with a sense of elegance not quite liberated from the
repressed nature of those visions of blue.
Courtesy: Sikkema Jenkins & Co.
Los Angeles is not Bradford’s only subject. Many of the paintings reference black
history, the difficulties of being a gay man (and especially a black gay man), aspects of American politics and specific other
cities. The most monumental piece in the
whole exhibition is a fragment of an ark that Bradford built in New Orleans as a
notional way to ride out any future disaster while commemorating the resilience
of the population that survived the largely humanmade flood.
Much of the delight I derive from this work is purely
visceral. Bradford is a master at
creating completely abstract surfaces whose complexity and density draw you
into their infinite and completely fictitious depths. The sheer size and sweep of many of the
images then draws you back out towards an admiration of what are painted epics.
What keeps it real for me is the manner in which the grids,
words, images and messages that appear out of the surfaces remind you of a
shared space and ground in which we talk to each other, sell each other, fight
with each other, and contest space. For
me, Bradford is an urbanist who proposes a map to a place we might already inhabit,
but do not see, and which we can reconstruct according to his directions.
Mark Bradford will be on view at the Museum of Contemporary
Art in Chicago through September 18th. It will be at the Dallas Museum of Art
October 16, 2011 through January 15, 2012, and at the San Francisco Museum of
Modern Art February 18 through May 20, 2012.