Retrospectively commenting on the occasion of Bradford’s major 2010-2012 travelling retrospective exhibition, Robert Storr identified three foundational subjects of abstract art that Bradford has undoubtedly addressed in a highly personal way: 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). The Merchant Poster paintings that Bradford began in 2006 are amongst his most iconic. Using posters, pamphlets and bulletins from the streets of the Leimert Park area where he lives and was raised, Bradford recapitulated the tradition of décollage. Drawing from a revolutionary technical legacy inaugurated by the Dadaist collages of Kurt Schwitters, the Cubism of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, and later by Mimmo Rotella and the Nouveau Réalisme movement, Bradford turns away from the mainstream newspapers and movie posters to harness the expedient metamorphosis of a specific, local consumer culture. Sampling the beating heart of L.A.’s black arts community. Bradford repurposes the visual and linguistic messages of barber shops, beauty salons, restaurants and events spaces; what Philippe Vergne describes as “the benchmarks of a very active ghost economy that exists next to the official, dominating one.” (Philippe Vergne, "No More Fire, the Paper Next Time" in Exh. Cat., Aspen, Aspen Art Museum, Mark Bradford: Merchant Posters, 2010, p. 19)
In the glimpses of truncated texts, Bradford constructs a cacophonous conversation of an ordinary yet diverse neighborhood economy, functioning away from sanitized chain stores and uniform commercial establishments. It would seem that the artist crafts a vision for an alternative utopia based on grass root networks. Yet as the artist explains, these signs also signal the fragility of such a concept and the vulnerability of a tight sense of community in the face of homogenized consumer capitalism: “these signs are very clearly speaking to the needs of the people in the community who are passing them by every day. It’s not like popular culture, where it’s all globalized. This is very localized. And what’s fascinating about it is that it changes so rapidly, like Transitional Housing, Sober Living, Cash for Your Homes. That’s something that’s come about in the last year. Now, in two or three years in the community, there are going to be other needs and other parasitic systems that are going to come and take advantage of them. It’s in a constant state of crisis here, a constant state of fluidity.” (the artist cited in Ernest Hardy, "Border Crossings," in Exh. Cat., Op. Cit., p. 9) Created in 2007, the present work elevates us from the street level of the merchant posters to provide a celestial map that physically overwhelms the viewer in its vast urban topography. In a labor intensive process of tearing and overlaying, Bradford delineates zones like veins that run though and over the surface to articulate an aerial view of structures and passages that disrupt the web of images below. The artist indulges in semantic games where the layers of abstract forms, image and text accumulate a strata of potential messages that never settle within a legible form.
Bradford’s title is at once profoundly nostalgic and inherently ambiguous. Referring most directly to James Brown's 1966 record of the same name, Let's Make Christmas Mean Something This Year is a sentiment that's ultimately denies any narrative influence by the artist's decidedly abstract composition. Moreover, as a religious holiday so fervently shaped by consumer practices, Bradford’s phrase equally recalls the idea that a meaningful sense of community can be overshadowed by the constant bombardment of products, packaging and promotion that inundates our cerebral consumption and social behaviors at this time of year. Interestingly, as we look deeper into the etched revelations of Bradford’s images, a set of faces emerge. Unlike the regional ads that he most commonly uses to reflect the community from which they emanate, this unique work is also occasionally intercepted by several stock images depicting the markedly ‘white middle-class’ individuals that are synonymous with mainstream advertising. Ubiquitous in popular culture to the point that their impact is diminished, these visual clichés initiate a poignant dialogue between the local and the global. As such, Bradford codifies the precarious balance of the personal and the universal that informs the ever-vacillating identity of urban communities. Yet ultimately it is Bradford’s distinct entry into the realm of abstraction that allows him to give some stasis to this unstable paradigm, best articulated through his description of 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.” (the artist cited in “Market>Place,” Art21, November 2011)
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