A RE­TURN TO HIS ROOTS

Los Angeles Times - - ARTS & BOOKS - BY CAROLINA A. MI­RANDA

Mark Brad­ford’s ex­hi­bi­tion cir­cles back to L.A. and old themes

Seated on scaf­fold­ing high above the floor of the Ham­mer Mu­seum, Mark Brad­ford runs his hand along the grooved out­line of a two-story map of the United States. Patches of bril­liant pinks, var­i­ous hues of blue and earthy olives peek out from where the white wall has been scraped to re­veal the many lay­ers un­der­neath — ev­i­dence of the past 29 mu­rals that have, at one point or another, oc­cu­pied the mu­seum’s lobby gallery. Within each state a num­ber has also been scraped: Cal­i­for­nia, 12.5; Florida, 28.1; Wy­oming, 2.4. These rep­re­sent the num­ber of ado­les­cents and adults out of ev­ery 100,000 peo­ple who were di­ag­nosed with AIDS at the end of 2009. As he runs his hand along the bor­der be­tween Washington and Ore­gon (7.3 and 6.7, re­spec­tively), Brad­ford says he de­cided not to use the most re­cent di­ag­no­sis rates be­cause he wanted to “leave some spec­u­la­tion about where we are now.” He adds: “HIV is not over.” The piece is a re­minder of a press­ing so­cial con­di­tion. But it’s also a wry nod to the mu­seum’s own history. “Find­ing Barry,” as the piece is called, takes its name from San Fran­cisco-based mu­ral­ist and pain­ter Barry McGee, who cre­ated one of the Ham­mer’s early lobby in­stal­la­tions in 2000— a crim­son skyscape of styl­ized clouds and sad-sack male fig­ures.

“He was one of the first to do a draw­ing on this wall,” says Brad ford per­son­ably. “So I’m just scrap­ing un­til I find Barry.”

On Satur­day, the Ham­mer Mu­seum opened the doors on “Scorched Earth,” the artist’s first solo mu­seum show in Los An­ge­les, where he’ll be dis­play­ing a se­ries of 12 new paint­ings (in­clud­ing the lobby mu­ral). The show also in­cludes a six-minute sound in­stal­la­tion ti­tled “Spiderman,” in which Brad­ford de­liv­ers an off-color com­edy rou­tine that lam­poons the of­ten crass and macho lan­guage of stand-up.(The piece was inspired by the artist’s own en­counter with a ho­mo­pho­bic Ed­die Mur­phy rou­tine.)

For the artist, this is an ex­hi­bi­tion that has been long in com­ing.

Brad­ford is a born and bred An­ge­leno, raised in West Adams and Santa Mon­ica and ed­u­cated at the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of the Arts, where he re­ceived both his bach­e­lor’s and his master’s de­grees in fin­earts. He has made a name for him­self in­ter­na­tion­ally with works that em­ploy the raw ma­te­ri­als that L.A. has given him, such as the plen­ti­ful street sig­nage advertising quick cash and DNA test­ing that he har­vests from util­ity poles and re­con­fig­ures into tex­tured, ab­stract works that ride the di­vide be­tween col­lage and paint­ing— works that chan­nel ur­ban land­scapes that have been con­structed and oblit­er­ated, only to be con­structed and oblit­er­ated again.

The artist has been the sub­ject of crit­i­cally well-re­ceived sur­veys and solo mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tions in New York, Bos­ton and San Fran­cisco. Since 2013, he has been rep­re­sented by Hauser & Wirth, the in­ter­na­tional gallery jug­ger­naut with spa­ces in Zurich, New York and Lon­don (with an L.A. out­post in the works). More­over, he is a 2009 re­cip­i­ent of a Mac Arthur Fel­low­ship, the so­called ge­nius grant. But un­til this week, he had never had a solo mu­seum showin L.A.

It’s a mo­ment in which the artist has come full cir­cle: Af­ter trav­el­ing the world, Brad­ford is hav­ing his mu­seum de­but in his home­town at age 53. But it’s also a re­turn to the themes that pre­oc­cu­pied him as a young, black gay man in Los An­ge­les in the early ’90s: Rod­ney King’s beat­ing by L.A. po­lice, the sub­se­quent ri­ots and some of the worst mo­ment sin the AIDS epi­demic, inthe days when con­tract­ing HIV rep­re­sented a prob­a­ble death sen­tence.

To­day, Brad­ford finds him­self con­tend­ing with head­lines that echo those themes: protests in cities such as Fer­gu­son, Mo., Bal­ti­more, Oak­land and Los An­ge­les over po­lice vi­o­lence against black men as well as sto­ries about the rav­ages of Ebola, which links im­ages of black peo­ple to fa­tal ill­ness in the larger media nar­ra­tive.

“This whole showis what I think of as big for­ma­tive mo­ments,” he says. “In 1992, dur­ing the ri­ots, the city was vul­ner­a­ble. It was cov­ered in cy­clone fenc­ing and ply­wood, where I got so much of my ma­te­rial. And HIV was hap­pen­ing, and the body be­came vul­ner­a­ble. It has to do with tran­si­tion. We had tore thin kour sex prac­tices. And we had to re­think our city.”

Brad­ford’s works have al­ways been a won­der to look at: wild pat­terns dap­pled with bits of color. But they’ve also al­ways crack­led with a kind of ag­gres­sion too— the ef­fect of lay­er­ing paint and pa­per into map-like ar­range­ments, then at­tack­ing the whole com­bi­na­tion with a san­der. The new works at the Ham­mer feel even more primeval: ge­o­log­i­cal ac­cre­tions of pa­per and paint webbed with lines and singed cir­cles that, in works such as “Test 3,” al­most take on the feel of bullet holes.

One paint­ing, ti­tled “Dead Hum­ming­bird,” fea­tures what ap­pears to be the black sil­hou­ette of a small bird against an ex­plod­ing back­ground of black lines. In parts, patches of red peek through like bits of coag­u­lated blood.

On the day of our in­ter­view a week ago, Brad­ford walks me through the Ham­mer’s gal­leries, where a pair of 12-foot-long coal­black can­vases lay on the floor await­ing in­stal­la­tion, look­ing like a pair of el­e­gant satel­lite aeri­als of des­ic­cated riverbeds. Brad­ford made them by plac­ing ink-soaked pa­per on the can­vas, then tear­ing it off as it dried. The pat­terns feel al­most cel­lu­lar.

“The paint­ings are re­ally vis­ceral,” says Con­nie But­ler, the Ham­mer’s chief cu­ra­tor. “When you walk through the gallery, there’s this sense of move­ment in the room. He talks about see­ing some­thing of cir­cu­la­tion and blood.”

“I wanted these to feel like I’m look­ing at some­thing un­der a mi­cro­scope,” says Brad­ford.

“The so­cial and po­lit­i­cal Mark Brad­ford gets a lit­tle back­burnered by the mar­ket suc­cess of his very beau­ti­ful paint­ings,” But­ler says. (His works have been known to sell at auc­tion for up­ward of $4mil­lion.) “But there are these touch­stones: the 1992 ri­ots and Fer­gu­son and the protests in the wake of Eric Garner. He re­ally thinks of these cy­cles of res­o­nance in the cul­ture.... And to me, they are all in those paint­ings.”

A round­about path

Brad­ford took a some­what cir­cuitous path to get to where he is, one that wound from Santa Mon­ica to Am­s­ter­dam, from a Leimert Park hair sa­lon to the hal­lowed halls of Cal Arts.

The artist is the eldest son of a sin­gle mom who worked as a hair­dresser. As is fre­quently noted in media pro­files, he is very tall and rail thin, check­ing in at al­most 6foot-8. To fit on the scaf­fold­ing at the Ham­mer, he has to fold him­self in half. Heis al­soa nat­u­ral-born ring­mas­ter. Over the course of our in­ter­view— con­ducted mostly atop said scaf­fold­ing— he greets the crowds of peo­ple walk­ing into the mu­seum with ef­fu­sive waves and joy­ous hel­los, as if wel­com­ing the world fro­man im­pro­vised me­tal­lic throne.

Brad­ford grew up in West Adams un­til age 11, when his mother, Jan­ice, moved the fam­ily to Santa Mon­ica, seek­ing a safer en­vi­ron­ment for her chil­dren. “This was not the Santa Mon­ica of to­day,” he says. “It was the Santa Mon­ica of co-ops and Birken­stocks and so­cial­ist nat­u­ral food stores.”

An un­re­mark­able stu­dent, when he got out of high school, he got his hair­dresser’s li­cense and went to work at his mother’s sa­lon in Leimert Park. His forté, he says, was color. “I could go into the back and mix the hell out of color,” he says, laugh­ing. “I could just never repli­cate it! I’d be all like, ‘Now how much of this did I put in there?’ ”

The sa­lon, he says, pro­vided him with a pro­tected space — one where he could be him­self. “The women there, they saw I was dif­fer­ent,” he re­mem­bers. “And they’d say, ‘It’s tough out there. You will have good days and bad days.’ ”

The sa­lon also pro­vided him with spend­ing money, which he used to travel to Europe for­weeks and months at a time when he was in his early 20s. As a teenager, Brad­ford had read James Mich­ener’s “Ibe­ria” as well as James Bald­win’s writ­ings on France. (De­spite be­ing a lousy stu­dent, he was al­ways a big reader.)

Bald­win, in par­tic­u­lar, was a ma­jor in­flu­ence. “I couldn’t be­lieve how pow­er­ful he had the nerve to be,” he says. “This was a man who wouldn’t let his sex­u­al­ity or his race de­fine him, who wouldn’t let so­ci­ety tell him what he could and couldn’t be.”

Inspired by these works, he made his way to Am­s­ter­dam, which he used as a base for ex­plor­ing Europe. The ex­pe­ri­ence was trans­for­ma­tive. “I felt lib­er­ated from U.S. racial con­straints,” he ex­plains. “It was the first time I felt that peo­ple weren’t just see­ing my color.”

Dur­ing this time, he set­tled on­the idea of study­ing art — some­thing that came as a grad­ual re­al­iza­tion in­stead of one big aha mo­ment. In his late 20s, Brad­ford set­tled back in L.A., en­rolling at Santa Mon­ica Col­lege. At the urg­ing of one of his teach­ers, he went on to Cal Arts. Like Europe, his stud­ies there rep­re­sented more a pe­riod of ab­sorp------------

Jay L. Clen­denin Los An­ge­les Times

MARK BRAD­FORD

in front of “I Don’t Have the Power to Force the Bath­houses to Post Any­thing, 2015,” mixed­me­dia on can­vas, part of his Ham­merMu­seum show.

JoshuaWhite Ham­mer Mu­seum

MARK BRAD­FORD, Un­ti­tled, 2015, mixed media on can­vas, above and be­low, are part of “Scorched Earth,” his first solo­mu­seum show in Los An­ge­les, where he’ll be dis­play­ing a se­ries of 12 new paint­ings.

JoshuaWhite Ham­mer Mu­seum

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