Mark Bradford. New Works
through May 20
Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles
By Shana Nys Dambrot
Folks are always trying to look for Mark Bradford in his work. But what they think they find is so often just a version of him, not so much inaccurate as wildly incomplete. Granted there’s a lot to embrace in a pared-down story of a South-Central kid making precocious modernist collage with his family hair salon supplies and continuing to work in this rich vein of abstractionist motif, eventually going on to include posters, advertisements, magazines, and other commonplace elements of neighborhood street media into the undertaking. The combination of low cultural materials and high-concept artistry is both visually and narratively irresistible. Where others drip, he scrapes. Where others paint, he collages. Where others add, he excavates. Instead of gesture, force of action. Instead of drawing, a kind of papier-mache scrimshaw. Instead of pop art, abstract expressionism. It’s such a perfectly structured revision of the canon, its appeal is obvious. And that might be enough. But, much like with the majestically complex work itself, there is a lot more than that going on behind the surface.
Lately Bradford has been calling attention to other perspectives on his experiences through expanded strategies of counterintuitive juxtaposition, in methods sculptural, architectural, performative, and video-based, with frequently epic results. With this exhibition of new works at Hauser Wirth Los Angeles, Bradford seems to be returning to something and somewhere he has been before. The painting studio, and the painter’s way of thinking. Though technically Bradford’s first solo show in LA in some 15 years, then-new works were presented at the Hammer Museum in 2015, tracing the evolution of his use of body imagery, as blood vessels and skin became heavily worked and transposed with emotional mapmaking of urban centers; and where in the lobby hidden histories uncovered with sandpaper conflated the architectural and artistic palimpsest of the site with an historical scheme of societal response to the AIDS epidemic. Now, in what is perhaps his most personal and yet also his most lighthearted and witty works yet, Bradford looks inward, takes up his atelier life again, and shows a whole new side of himself — a comic-books super fan.
Reminiscent of earlier work (circa 2001) which layered race, gender, and soccer along a global continuum of immigration and identity, the works at Hauser & Wirth LA are made with the same physical, deeply scored, carved out, labor-intensiveness, mixed media process he is known for. At a distance, the large and even small-scale works telegraph the impasto strut of heavy paint and a decisive linearity criss-crossing their organic, geological surfaces. In truth, it is a fraying palimpsest of accumulated source materials, heavily augmented and eroded, left outside in the elements to cure a la Keifer, peeled back at small bore like a difficult fruit to reveal a seemingly endless cosmology of words and pictures, made from comic book panels. The sheer density of pattern, texture, and partial-picture detail in any given square foot already contains contradictions and multitudes. Across the varied and variegated skins of the ten works on display, that increases exponentially, like doing a deep dive on a Google map from space to curbside. It’s dizzying, and it’s meant to be.
But this time the reward is not necessarily a contemplative reconsideration of the social impact of urban design and economics. Instead it is a pop of wit and color and the smile of recognition when the viewer discovers first one, then another, then scores and hundreds (thousands!) of comic book moments bubbling throughout the universe of these stately, radiant paintings. Because this too was Bradford’s story. South Central was one thing, but as a young adolescent his family moved to Santa Monica, in furtherance of his safety and education. But as a 6-foot tall 14 year-old questioning his sexuality, Bradford didn’t exactly experience that time as one of sanctuary. Like so many young adults across time and space, he did find refuge in comic books, even though or perhaps in a strange way because, the superheroes didn’t look like him. [Editor’s note: the fact that this show opened the same day as Black Panther is supposedly a coincidence.] With this take on his own technique, Bradford is showing the public an aspect of himself in the form of bright color, wry wit, and his personal gift for maintaining grace and humor in his engagement with the full range of social discourse. These works are stunning in their beauty, fractal in their complexity, profound in their strategic evocations of art history — and also as boom-banging, cape-wearing, swashbuckling, derring-do as comics can be in the hands of a grown-up.
Of special note are two concurrent exhibitions, one by the Romanian artist Geta Brătescu, which in its way shows a variant methodology for combining classicism with cartooning, deploying humor and a stylized visual wit; and another showing never-before seen latter-day works on paper by the iconic Louise Bourgeois. In “Red Sky” Bourgeois was working with extenuated, wavering lines and clustered nodes of small-scale circles, as well as with scrawled aphorisms that read like analog AbEx memes. Both of these remarkable exhibitions have a lot to offer on their own — but the loveliest surprise was perceiving the unlooked-for connections between and among the three.