Mark Bradford’s intricate Curtis from 2007 shocks and seduces the eye, drawing the viewer in to examine the labyrinthine web of collaged paper. At first glance, the canvas reads like an aerial map, detailing a geographic coastline and a gridded city plan. The bottom displays a gleam of serene silver foil, offset by the disjointed word fragments pasted in the upper portion of the canvas. The tightly articulated white channels running throughout the canvas simultaneously evoke a manmade urban landscape and a network of capillaries or nerves in the human body. Curtis harmoniously marries geometric abstraction and organic forms in a formally innovative and visually striking canvas.
In his signature style, Bradford scavenges and collects found materials from around his South Central Los Angeles neighborhood, Leimert Park, and layers them upon his canvas to form complex shapes and textures. Bradford describes his process: “I like to walk through the city and find details and then abstract them and make them my own. I’m not speaking for a community or trying to make a sociopolitical point. At the end, it’s my mapping. My subjectivity” (Bradford cited in “Market>Place,” Art21, 2007). Trolling the streets of Leimert Park, Bradford plays the role of the flâneur, an urban explorer and intent observer of the metropolitan world around him. By repurposing materials with a built-in social history, Bradford imbues his paintings with a cultural reference point and provides an examination of contemporary urban society.
Urban detritus littering the streets is both his muse and his material; the posters, newsprint, magazines, and perm end-papers he finds on the street inform his future composition. Once layered and woven, Bradford masks and transforms these found materials so the viewer must visually excavate the canvas in order to discern its medium. In conversation with Christopher Bedford, Bradford remarks, “I make the textless readily readable and slightly out of focus so the viewer is forced to look more closely.” Indeed, both the collaged papers with and without text in Curtis are visually perplexing from afar, so it is Bradford’s intention to bring in the viewer to piece apart his abstraction.
When Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque began experimenting with synthetic Cubism, collaging newspapers, sheets of music and various papers functioning as zeitgeists of Paris in the early 20th Century, they sought to achieve a new, heightened reality through abstraction. In the tradition of his Cubist predecessors, Bradford chooses materials with inherent meaning and reference, establishing a unique brand of representation through his abstraction. Bradford’s titles for his works generate a further link to his own environment; the title of the present work, Curtis, perhaps references the rapper 50 Cent, whose real name is Curtis James Jackson III. Continually in his work, Bradford pays homage to rappers and Hip Hop artists ingrained in the fabric of his community and the artist’s own childhood.
Like his art historical predecessors, Bradford seeks to give formal cohesion to a multitude of references and cultural signifiers. Bradford literally and metaphorically weaves together the diverse pieces of his physical and social world with the imagery around him. Acting as flâneur, Bradford bears witness to his surroundings, ultimately expressing a personal and collective identity in each of his beautifully complex and intricate compositions.