In Mark Bradford’s 2006 composition, Exodus, the modernist grid seems to have strayed from its linear path. The quasi-rectangular forms that emerge in bold outlines across the predominantly red surface gesture towards visual order, but this undergirding framework is visibly skewed.
Throughout some sections, Bradford’s rectilinear shapes veer off their axes into radial patterns, while others are swallowed up by black patches, creating voids within the picture plane. Bradford’s richly textured collage offers a glimmer of insight to its physical makeup—along one edge, the surface gives way to what lies beneath—some revealing fragments of bright color, a snippet of text among the strata of found paper. Bradford’s wary grid provides a sort of Rosetta Stone to his abstract field of representation. He gestures subtly towards maps, aerial views, and visions of a city.
Exodus is a strong example of Bradford’s early phase of multimedia collages. Often large in scale, astutely abstract, and intricately materialized, Bradford’s collages mark his stoic entanglement with the tradition of modernist painting. He even refers to the works as paintings—though critics are quick to point out that there is actually very little paint involved in these complex compositions.
The material that makes up the many layers of Bradford’s work is mostly found or repurposed paper: fragments of billboards rescued from the streets of South Central Los Angeles; found “merchant papers,” as Bradford has coined street flyers and posters that he pulls from construction site barriers and telephone poles; and endpapers—used in styling hair—up-cycled from the salon where Bradford had worked as a hairdresser.
As a Los Angeles native, urbanity, specifically the realities of urban life have informed the very core of his practice both philosophically and aesthetically. Bradford’s artistic arsenal is composed of literal material fragments of urban life and the configurations that result from his distinctive practice. These often allude to the physical makeup of his city, and are seen as an expression of the dense and distinctly metropolitan network of interwoven districts.
These physical materials anchor Bradford’s collages, adding personal, cultural, and geographic elements to the thick accretion atop his canvases. Bradford’s methodology is simultaneously additive and destructive: he builds dense layers of matter only to erode them back. Bradford works quickly and intuitively, while adding and subtracting until he is able to balance the visual and tactile energy of the composition. In the pursuit of this equilibrium, Bradford’s collages evoke both the exhibitionism of Robert Rauschenberg’s works combined with the oppression of Gerhard Richter’s 1990’s era abstractions. Bradford’s dialogue with the material culture and economic realities of his community, aligned with schema of 20th century painting, forge a new chapter within the art historical canon. Bradford codifies the precarious balance of the personal and the universal, which informs the ever-vacillating identity of urbanites.
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