A RETURN TO HIS ROOTS
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------------
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.
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.