Bradford’s richly textured collage offers glimpses of its material makeup: the top surface gives way to expose what lies underneath and at the margins – fragments of bright colour. Searching the total of Bradford’s abstract field for some sort of representational source, the uncertain grid may provide a key, gesturing ever so loosely towards maps, aerial views, and visions of a city. In this manner we are reminded of Richard Diebenkorn, whose Ocean Park series translated the artist’s Californian locale into grid-like colour field compositions. However, unlike the formalistic project of Diebenkorn, Bradford’s work is more entrenched in the vicissitudes of his social experience. As curator Christopher Burden has argued: “Bradford’s early formal investigations into the material properties of permanent-wave end papers and certain chemicals used to treat and straighten hair, seen in works like Enter and Exit the New Negro (2000) and Strawberry (2002), were a calculated way to enter the deeply freighted historical conversation of abstract painting from a vantage point that was pointedly grounded in his social experience and that forced the hermeticism of abstraction to account for the unrelenting specificity of materials” (Christopher Bedford, ‘Against Abstraction’, in: Exh. Cat., Colombus, Wexner Center for the Arts (and travelling), Mark Bradford, 2010-12, p. 12).
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 his sprawling Leimert Park neighbourhood in South Central Los Angeles; flyers and posters that he pulls from construction site barriers and telephone poles; and endpapers repurposed from his mother’s salon where he worked during his youth. These materials anchor Bradford’s collages, adding personal, cultural, and geographic layers to the many that accrue atop his canvases. The artist’s methodology is both additive and destructive, building dense layers of matter only to erode them. He works quickly, intuitively, adding and subtracting until he is able to balance the energy of his compositions. In the pursuit of this equilibrium, Bradford’s collages invoke a dialogue with chance – materials inform the direction of his work, which ultimately comes to represents an organic call and response between the artist and his medium. The unpredictability of Bradford’s method speaks to the role of chance in the abstract paintings of Gerhard Richter of the late 1980s and 1990s, works in which oil paint is applied, scraped and accreted to create compositions that privilege happenstance. Nonetheless, unlike oil paint, Bradford’s raw material has a social history. By using found paper that is rooted to the streets and spaces of the neighbourhood he has lived in all of his life, Bradford’s work prompts us, to quote art historian Robert Storr, “to wonder how many generations of urgent announcements or hit-and-run appeals to credulity we are being confronted within the instant that we become able to bring into focus the word and image pileup Bradford has amassed” (Robert Storr, ‘And what I assume you shall assume…’, in: Ibid., p. 42). In dialogue with the material culture and economic realities of his community as much as with traditions of twentieth-century painting, Bradford has forged a new image space within the history of abstraction.
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