Throughout his fundamentally groundbreaking career, Mark Bradford has continued to pursue new frontiers of abstraction, creating a corpus of truly stunning works that encapsulate within their borders the full breadth of this pioneering search. Smear, executed in 2015 and thus one of the most recent landmarks in Bradford’s artistic exploration, stages a meticulous excavation of the vestiges of everyday life, enacted through a highly considered, detailed, and labor-intensive process. Clothed in the camouflage of a repetitive cycle of addition and subtraction, Bradford’s chosen media is simultaneously revealed and obscured by the geometric strata that emerge as an architectural framework of compositional organization. Glimpses of the artist’s source material, culled from the detritus of his Leimert Park neighborhood in Los Angeles, are abstracted under the structuring rule of his systematic grooves; the inherently discordant layering of disparate images wholly ordered by Bradford’s fastidious method of creation. Smear, in its final, monumental form holds within its layers of collage all the alluring subtlety of a white impasto by Robert Ryman, the procedural ingenuity of Gerhard Richter, the striking thematic wall-power of Jasper Johns and the epic serenity of Yayoi Kusama. Forging together a disciplined mathematical spatiality with a poetic dispersion of color through the torn debris of Bradford's diverse found material, Smear encapsulates the artist’s inimitable response to the urban networks and topographies that are absolutely integral to who he is and what he creates.
Smear courses with a stunning vitality that evinces the complex evolution of its phenomenally variegated surface. While the noun form of “smear,” a horizontal drag of a substance across a surface, seems to be evoked by the eponymous work’s composition, the painstaking technicality of its execution belies the connotations of ungoverned abandon that accompany “smear” as a verb. Instead, Smear is the direct result of a protracted method of collage and décollage that transforms Bradford’s canvas from simply an arena in which to orchestrate an aesthetic arrangement into a highly constructed, autonomous object. Like trenches running through the artist’s formulated landscape, the repeated series of horizontal and vertical demarcations of pictorial space convey Bradford’s methodical physicality, their edges projecting outwards from the canvas ground, conferring a striking three-dimensionality to the surface.
Integrally connected to such varied sources as the histories of abstraction, cartography, and urban design, Bradford’s distinctive practice is, above all informed by the materials he uses. While his works are considered within the medium of painting, Bradford's methods cannot be described as painting in the traditional sense. He eschews brushes of any size or shape; similarly, paint in its various forms – oil, acrylic, watercolor – has no place on the surface of his expansive canvases. In lieu of these conventional media, Bradford’s labyrinthine compositions are a direct result of the artist’s immediate surroundings. Working from a deliberately concentrated area directly adjacent to his studio, Bradford gathers a compendium of found materials, primarily paper, which determine the parameters of each distinct work and serve as the building blocks of his intricate and indelibly engaging final paintings.
Urbanity, specifically the realities of urban life in Los Angeles where Bradford was born and continues to live and work today, has informed the very core of his practice both philosophically and aesthetically. His artistic arsenal is composed of literal fragments of urban life, and the configurations that result from his distinctive practice often allude to the physical makeup of his native city, a dense and distinctly metropolitan network of interwoven zones. In this vein, Smear, with the overwhelming regularity of its geometry, projects a sort of Utopian metropolis, as if the chaos of cosmopolitan life could be subsumed within the structuring power of Bradford’s compositional order. Robert Storr, in an essay to accompany Bradford’s major 2010-2012 travelling retrospective exhibition, identified three foundational subjects of Abstract Art: Art itself; the City; and Utopia (Robert Storr, “And what I assume you shall see…,” in Exh. Cat., Ohio, Wexner Center for the Arts, Ohio State University (and travelling), Mark Bradford, 2010, p. 59) By this classification, Smear encapsulates the critical tenets of abstraction and thus represents the whole of Mark Bradford’s oeuvre which, since his first solo exhibition at L.A.’s Deep River Gallery in 1998, has built upon that paramount art historical genre, effectively making it his own.
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