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Mark Bradford at the DMA: Pop. Abstract. Scavenged. Mediated. Personalized and Politicized.
by Jerome Weeks 20 Oct 2011

It’s the first survey of Mark Bradford’s meteoric career. In only 10 years, he’s had a solo show at the Whitney in New York and won the ‘genius’ grant. Bradford scavenges his LA neighborhood for scraps of paper — and turns them into archeological maps, abstract expressionist swirls, murals as ephemeral as newspapers, as corroded as Roman wall paintings.


Mark Bradford, DMA interim director Olivier Meslay and DMA curator Jeffrey Grove (l to r) in front of Detail (part of the work, Mithra)

The exhibition of Mark Bradford’s works at the Dallas Museum of Art is the first major survey of the artist who won a MacArthur ‘genius grant.’ KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports that Bradford’s artworks are both simple and highly detailed. They’re collections of scraps — with a lot to say.

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You can’t help but notice that many of Mark Bradford’s artworks are big. The size of walls.

Bradford: “That seems to be my standard size. It’s a little bit bigger than life size, ‘cuz I’m large.”

Bradford’s 6 feet 8 but built like a beanpole. What he calls the ‘wingspan’ of his works makes you stand back to see them. And when you do, you’ll notice many look like paintings. They’re like canvases by Jackson Pollock, abstract expressionist paintings full of swirls and grids of color. Critics and curators even regularly refer to them as paintings.

But they’re not, they’re collages (left, detail from A Truly Rich Man is One Whose Children Run Into His Arms Even When His Hands Are Empty)

Grove: “I truthfully hadn’t thought about that so hard until I was standing with all of the works here.”

Jeffrey Grove is the Dallas Museum of Art curator who worked on the Bradford show. It began its national tour at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio.

Grove: “And I thought, ‘Mark’s a collage artist.’ And so for me, I realized Mark’s an abstract painter who wasn’t painting.'”

All those swirls are made from hundreds, even thousands of bits of paper. The man is the Magneto of paper — he seems to collect scraps of wood pulp from everywhere. Then the paper is cut, torn, burned, soaked, faded, layered, re-layered, wrinkled or sanded. Bradford’s collages often have the big, bold impact of an abstract mural but close-up, they can be spiderwebbed with fine details. Words from comic books or magazine ads peep through all the different kinds and colors of paper.

Bradford: “The paper is scavenged from the sides of buildings, plywood barricades. Some is bought – off the internet, from the giftwrap shop. You know, it’s a hybrid – and if I was going to describe the overallness of my work I would say it’s maplike.”

Some of his collages even started as topographical maps, although they became maps of a different sort.

The DMA exhibition surveys the first decade of Bradford’s remarkable career so far. Within those ten years, he’s already had his first solo show at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York and won the MacArthur grant. He first became known for soft, moody even lovely collages made from the end papers that hairdressers use for a permanent wave or ‘perm’ (left, Strawberry, 2002). But he didn’t want to be pegged as that ‘up-from-the-streets’ black artist, the guy who scrounged his supplies from his mother’s beauty parlor.

In fact, Bradford has a master’s degree from the California Institute for the Arts. One of his first collages was called, Enter and Exit the New Negro. Living in Lemiert Park in South Central LA, he says he’s continually baffled by the media representations of his neighborhood — the old-school, hip-hop, gangland cliches that don’t reflect the people he knows living and working in a settled, post-war area with a long history in the local art world.

So for his materials, Bradford turned to a prime interest of his, items he collected even when he’d been in art school: the cheap posters put up on fences and phone poles, the ones that hawk paternity tests or legal services for immigrants. Bradford may be an abstract artist, but using advertising texts is what pop artists like Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha did — a tradition Bradford admires, even though it was castigated in his grad school days. Bradford uses advertising text, too — for different reasons.

Bradford: “What I liked about the merchant posters was this fringe economy, this ghost economy. These businesses spring up because there’s a need, they’re very parasitic. And then they’re up, they have a very short shelf life and then they’re just gone. But I realized that these things, these little snapshots also point to political, economic ups and downs.”

So as abstract as Bradford’s collages are, they’re also like social networks and archaeological maps of Leimert Park. In these ways, Bradford has repeatedly bridged or encompassed both abstract and pop art, the personal and the political, black and white. It’s not surprising his collages have become exponentially more complicated than his original endpaper pieces. They’re intensely textured with throwaway media materials, with layered graphite surfaces. His collages can look as ancient and corroded as a Roman mural, as recent and ephemeral as this morning’s newspaper supplement. The signals they send are complicated, dense, mixed, full of interference.

Bradford: “Ideas of purity, those are all – yeah, they can just leave the vocabulary [laughs]. They can leave the room.”

Grove: [laughs] “Dismissed!”

Corner of Desire and Piety (2008) and A Truly Rich Man is One Whose Children Run into His Arms Even When His Hands Are Empty (2008)