This unique approach is above all else informed by the materials Bradford uses. While his works are categorically considered within the realm of painting, by both himself and the larger artistic community, his works 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 – plays little to no role in the surfaces 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 engaging final paintings. The materials he uses are also deeply personal – a principal ingredient of his early collages in particular were hundreds of used end papers, an intimate reference to a youth spent working in his mother’s hair salon in Los Angeles.
Lying at a crucial juncture of Bradford’s practice, when he moved away from using end papers to create richly built up topographical surfaces, the abstracted expanses of Mark Bradford’s works are visually evocative of the urban sprawl that spawned them. A dense cluster of color and form towards the center, abounding with bright flashes of green, orange and red, gives way to an arterial network of shadowy ridges and furrows which coalesce to form a mesmerizing cartographic structure which invites the viewer to interpret, or project, a sense of place. After all, Spinning Man is a work that seeks to both obscure and revel in process. The layers of material that make up the work are instruments of transparency. Gaps in the paper reveal what lies beneath, and colors are permitted to reveal themselves through translucent paper, showing the viewer what they were, are, and could be. As Bradford puts it: "It's like watching people use a sledgehammer to dig up concrete and then there's nature underneath. I thought I was retrieving some of my own work beneath the surface." (The artist quoted in Michele Carlson, "Mark Bradford Brings Mainstream to the Fringe," Art in America, March 15, 2012)
Bradford's process results in a saturated urban arrangement, at once levied by and with geography. Large spreads of paper are left untouched and act like undeveloped land that encloses the edges of constructed layouts. The visual networks that Bradford has created here are buttressed by the socioeconomic systems that are represented by the merchant posters and papers of his Los Angeles community. Like Julie Mehretu, Bradford examines architecture and urban planning as an analogue through which to interpret social change; unlike his contemporary, however, there is no attempt to invoke a direct reality, simply a transitory sense of place. The rivulets across the surface of Spinning Man do not correspond to a city grid, but rather can rather be read as fractures that signal the fragility and vulnerability of the tight knit communities that Bradford knows and loves in the face of the homogenizing effects of consumer capitalism. Drawing on a revolutionary technical legacy inaugurated by the Dadaist collages of Kurt Schwitters and Cubist works by 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. These linguistic and visual signifiers expose 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)
Drawing on an artistic arsenal composed of literal fragments of urban life, Bradford is celebrated as one of the most influential and vital artists of his generation. The subject of widespread critical and public acclaim, Bradford has enjoyed major institutional support in recent years, including international solo shows at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. in 2017 and a major solo presentation at the U.S. Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale entitled Tomorrow is Another Day. Like Norman Lewis and Jack Whitten, whom Bradford cites as inspirations, his paintings are deeply aware of their place in history, but unlike his predecessors, Bradford is telling a story that is deeply personal as opposed to universal. In the artist’s words: “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 quoted in “Market>Place,” Art21, November 2011)
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