NOVEMBER 19, 2010 – MARCH 13, 2011


NOVEMBER 11, 2010 – MARCH 13, 2011

Mark Bradford, “Untitled (B)” (2010). Courtesy the Studio Museum in Harlem.
Mark Bradford, “Untitled (B)” (2010). Courtesy the Studio Museum in Harlem.

Mark Bradford has a striking presence and people like to talk about it. Even the most self-serious art writers set aside paragraphs to say that he’s impressively tall, thin, and disarmingly handsome. They tell some version of his story, say that he used bed sheets when he couldn’t afford canvas; that he could have been, or almost was, a basketball player; that he perfected his engaging manner while working as a stylist in his mother’s hair salon. But however the story goes, it always returns to notions of beauty and charm—concepts as central to discussing Bradford as they are to discussing his work.

Bradford’s self-titled exhibition at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art surveys the most recent decade of his work, tracing his new forays into sculpture, video, and installation, but focusing above all on his signature collages on canvas. There’s not a shy piece in the show. The smallest works are poster sized, and the others consume whole walls with stripes of texture and bold color.

Take the dramatically-titled “A Truly Rich Man is One Whose Children Run into His Arms Even When His Hands Are Empty” (2008). Nearly 9 feet wide and 9 feet tall, it calls to mind the charred and shattered windshields of cars burned in riots—black, webbed with streaks of light, sleek. If studied section by section, it offers traces of the artist’s sensual, tactile process, revealing delicate layers of found material sliced and sanded, lacquered and pasted until transformed. But “Rich Man” overwhelms the field of vision, pushing viewers back nearly to the opposite wall, so that these intimate details are lost.

Nearby, “Mississippi Gottdam” (2007) delights in the puckered face of waterlogged billboard paper, tracing raised peaks with black pigment, or graying them out, filling valleys with silver foil. The result is a study in somber tones marked with the undulating gestures one expects from ukiyo-e landscapes. Bradford’s pieces are quite literally polished, sharply composed, so that they flirt with the cold aesthetic of the commercially produced graphic designs and adverts embedded in their surfaces. Their beauty is untroubled by ugliness or imprecision of any kind—pretty almost to a fault.

But Bradford would not have us approach his work on a formal level alone—if you’ve come for the looks, you have to stay for the politics, too. “Mississippi Gottdam” may look like beach grass, but its title points to Nina Simone’s Civil Rights-era protest song by that name. What appear to be dynamic, rust-colored, abstract maps in adjacent rooms bear titles like “Scorched Earth” (2006) and “Black Venus” (2005), referencing race riots that leveled prosperous black neighborhoods, and phrenological studies conducted to prove Africans over-sexed and subhuman.

It’s tempting to raise an eyebrow here—viewers may recoil when they discover that a visually alluring canvas is titled with a charged phrase. At times, Bradford seems to treat political issues like any other found material, lacquering them into his work with energetic abandon, paying more heed to process than outcome.

But he lends credibility to his commentary by involving himself actively in the issues his work discusses. If he says that a piece is about Hurricane Katrina, then you can be sure its materials were salvaged from the wreckage of New Orleans during his work with Prospect.1, showcase to mobilize aid for storm victims. He fosters a sense that his works don’t just give lip-service to the topics in their captions, that they serve as records of action taken.

When it comes to peering past the surface of Bradford’s work, the Wexner Center’s catalog of this exhibition is an invaluable guide, taking a variety of approaches to the oeuvre with a dream team of essayists. Robert Storr’s piece considers Bradford in the context of his forebears, offering a treatise on the origins of abstraction to boot. Maybe Storr calls a car ride an “automobile tour” and affects the “murmuring art history seminar” tone he derides—but what a seminar! Meanwhile, Hilton Als assumes the tone of a gutter-mouthed, faded pop star, telling a tale of trannies and dick, garnished with a Henry James quote.

This is the best way to engage with Bradford. Know your postmodern theory and your art history, but be prepared to think about Biggie Smalls and Kobe Bryant, or at least James Brown. Be ready to switch quickly from high-to low-brow.

But, above all, know about Mark Bradford himself. “But You Better Not Get Old” (2003) and “Smokey” (2003) are dark, magnetic canvases, smooth like snake skin and striated with subtle stripes like the best Juan Uslé, worthwhile for their looks and formal accomplishment alone. But the critics who cling to Bradford’s biography have a point: if you don’t know that he worked in his mother’s salon, you won’t know that these works are lacquered with permanent-wave end papers, and you’ll miss the wink behind their visual gravity. The charm of Bradford’s story permeates his work—whether he’s combing his neighborhood for refuse, or salvaging materials from Katrina’s wake, he is building the physical stuff of his life into his art—and it’s the story that sets him apart from other artists of equal talent.

There’s a video piece, “Practice” (2003), that portrays Bradford shooting hoops. It’s a very windy day—and the artist is wearing a voluminous antebellum hoop dress that trips him every step of the way. Any performance artist could make this a hilarious bit of slapstick, but only Bradford could lace it with so many tensions about race, gender, and sexuality.

If you can’t make it to Boston in time to view Bradford’s monumental pieces, visit the gem-sized works currently on view in the Harlem Studio Museum’s Alphabet exhibition. The essential elements are all here—each immaculately crafted letter speaks of Bradford’s accomplished technique, his capacity to add an aura of glamour to even the most mundane subject matter. Free of overt topical content, the letters can be taken as reverent meditations on the building blocks of language and the communication of ideas, inviting the viewer to lean close in a way that his mural-sized pieces do not. There are few opportunities to engage with Bradford’s work so intimately.


Maxwell Heller


FEB 2011

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