-Katy Siegel, “Somebody or Nobody,” in Exh. Cat., Columbus, Wexner Center for the Arts, Mark Bradford, 2010, p. 103
A captivating vision of expressive abstraction and tactile materiality, Disappear Like a Dope Fiend from 2006 is an exquisite embodiment of Mark Bradford’s unprecedented artistic investigation of the contemporary urban experience. Belonging to a pivotal early moment in the artist’s oeuvre, the present work is an exceptionally vibrant example of Bradford’s use of diverse found material to create richly textured and monumental collages of scavenged, applied, and excavated paper. Invoking ever so subtly images of abstract maps or aerial glimpses of urban sprawl, the intricate network of horizontal ridges and neatly delineated squares of primary color coalesces to form a kaleidoscopic cartographic structure, drawing the viewer’s gaze into a mesmerizing grid as irresistible as it is uncertain. Throughout his fundamentally groundbreaking career, Bradford has continued to pursue new frontiers of abstraction, creating a corpus of works that is as much in dialogue with the socioeconomic realities of urban life as with the canonical traditions of Twentieth-Century abstraction. Even the rhythmic title of the present work, drawn from the lyrics of a 1996 2Pac song, ‘All Eyez on Me,’ gestures towards Bradford’s virtuosic ability to harvest, incorporate, and transform the linguistic and visual ephemera of his surroundings to reveal new visions of contemporary humanity. Included in the 2010 retrospective exhibition Mark Bradford, organized by the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University in Columbus and travelling to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Disappear Like a Dope Fiend powerfully demonstrates Bradford’s recrafting of the role of the flâneur for the Twenty first Century: an urban explorer, intent upon revealing the vital intricacies and truths of communities that would otherwise remain obscured.
Emerging from the scarlet striations running horizontally across Disappear Like a Dope Fiend, dense clusters of turquoise and yellow squares jostle and vie with the darker, shadowy shapes and transparent veils of paper layered throughout; despite their loose adherence to the underlying grid, these vibrant forms frequently veer from their guiding axes to tumble down the surface in bright deluges of geometric form. Exemplifying Bradford’s early multimedia collages, the extraordinary depth and laboriously worked appearance of the present work owes much to the artist’s principal compositional element: permanent wave endpapers. An intimate reference to a youth spent working in his mother’s hair salon in Los Angeles, Bradford’s use of found and repurposed paper anchors these early collages, adding personal, cultural, and geographic layers to the many that accrue atop his canvases. Working through an extraordinary method of collage and décollage, Bradford first constructs dense layers of material, then fastidiously scrapes them away, repeatedly adding and eroding in a highly considered, detailed, and labor-intensive process. This material transformation is central to Bradford’s work; through his meticulous excavation of the vestiges of everyday life, he is able to reveal an entire labyrinthine landscape that glows, shimmers, and resonates. Explaining his process in cross-disciplinary terms, Bradford describes the dichotomies in his work: “It’s almost like a rhythm. I’m a builder and a demolisher. I put up so I can tear down. I’m a speculator and a developer. In archaeological terms, I excavate and I build at the same time.” (the artist, cited in “Mark Bradford: Politics, Process and Postmodernism,” Art21, April 1, 2013) This defining statement of artistic intent is made material in the surface of Disappear Like a Dope Fiend, where painterly tension derives from the relationship between seen and unseen, surface and substance, presence and absence.
In his formal investigation of such materials as endpapers and similarly scavenged paper as a primary medium, amply demonstrated in the extraordinary surface of Disappear Like a Dope Fiend, Bradford engages with the weighty legacy of American abstract painting from a vantage point firmly grounded in his own, highly particularized social experience. While Bradford’s engagement with the tradition of modernist painting is evident in the underlying geometry of the present work, the unrelenting specificity of his materials inevitably returns the viewer to the material culture and economic realities of his community; explaining his departure from the trajectory of canonical abstraction, Bradford describes: "Historically abstraction has always belonged to the canon. It’s still the biggest export this country has made: big white men of the 1950s; Jackson Pollock… But I didn’t want abstraction that was inward looking; I wanted abstraction that looked out at the social and political landscape." (The artist, cited in Barry Jenkins, “Mark Bradford,” Interview Magazine, June 13, 2017) While demonstrating a clear fluency within the trajectory of modernist painting, Bradford’s paintings break free of established restraints to forge a new chapter within the art historical canon. Indeed, the title of Disappear Like a Dope Fiend is particularly evocative of scholar Katy Siegel’s description of Bradford’s practice, as cited in the exhibition catalogue for the 2010 survey Mark Bradford, which featured the present work: “There are two possibilities: to be seen or to disappear. The first, to be visible, means to be recognized. To be recognizable, you must align yourself with known categories…If you take a form or identity that is not socially recognized—either because it is unfamiliar or not valued—you risk invisibility. To be unseen, not to matter…Mark Bradford’s art is a complicated disquisition on all of these possibilities. As Bradford once described it to fellow artist Kara Walker, the condition he inhabits is one of ‘having to fight erasure and rigid identity constructs at the same time.’” (Katy Siegel, “Somebody or Nobody,” in Exh. Cat., Columbus, Wexner Center for the Arts, Mark Bradford, 2010, p. 103) Within the densely layered strata of Disappear Like a Dope Fiend, formal abstraction is weaponized as a potent tool for revelatory social commentary: rather than settle, obscured, within the larger canon, his densely layered collages emerge to reveal glimpses of shared identities and existences camouflaged just below the surface.
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