A recipient of the 2009 MacArthur 'Genius Grant', Mark Bradford is a world-renowned abstract artist based in Los Angeles. He earned his BFA in 1995 when he was in his 30s, and graduated with an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts two years later.Read More
Bradford's art practice is inextricably linked to his personal history. Raised in a single-parent family, he moved to Santa Monica at age 11. He spent most of his formative years helping out inside his mother's beauty salon, Foxy Hair, which was situated in Los Angeles' Leimert Park neighbourhood. After high school, he attained a hairdresser's license and worked at his mother's salon.
With his meagre savings from hairstyling, Bradford spent the rest of his time immersing himself in nightclub culture—especially drag performance—both in Los Angeles and abroad, before deciding to take fine art courses at Santa Monica College.
Mesmerised by Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, as well as Robert Rauschenberg's 'combines', Bradford realised that he would never become an easel painter. Instead, he returned to a medium he'd worked with since his childhood: end papers—the small rectangular tissues used during the perming process in salons.
Mark Bradford's work predominantly takes the form of papier mâché painting-sculpture hybrids. Often the artist will incorporate found materials embedded with their own meaning.
The artist often incorporated singed permanent-wave end papers and cellophane used in hair dyeing in early abstract collages such as Daddy, Daddy, Daddy (2001), which is in the collection of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York. Other found materials like commercial fliers, posters, and billboards salvaged from South Los Angeles also make their way onto his large-scale canvases. After gluing them in place until many layers are formed, he laboriously sands the surface to reveal colours and patterns.
Bradford describes his method of layering and then grinding down the surface as analogous to archaeological digging or plumbing the depths of the human psyche.
In addition to 'digging', Mark Bradford has also introduced the technique of 'pulling' to his practice, in which ropes are embedded in the layers of paper and then pulled away. Works utilising this technique include Pull Painting 1 (2015) and Nothing about this is good (2018).
Bradford has never shied away from tackling identity politics, and the materials he uses in his works, which he describes as 'social abstraction', are loaded with connotations of race and class. Such materials include not only end papers but also, for instance, mortgage flyers targeting people with low incomes.
The artworks themselves sometimes veer away from abstraction to make clear social critiques, as in Finding Barry (2015), for which the AIDS rates of different states of the United States were carved into the walls of the Hammer Museum. The video Practice (2003) taps into issues of queerness and black bodies with the artist himself filmed shooting hoops while wearing a Los Angeles Lakers shirt and a four-foot-diameter hoop skirt. Such works seek to undo the stereotype of effortless athleticism often affixed to African Americans.
Mark Bradford's social engagement is also strongly evidenced in his art. In his contribution to New Orleans' Prospect.1 triennial in 2008, for example, he used posters and plywood panels to construct a boat-like sculpture entitled Mithra—a Noah's Ark for the people of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Apart from working as an artist, Bradford co-founded the non-profit space Art + Practice in 2014 with social activist Allan DiCastro and collector Eileen Harris Norton. Hosting events and exhibitions, the space seeks to provide art education for children under foster care and act as an institution of contemporary art for its community.
In 2017, Mark Bradford represented the United States at the Venice Biennale with the solo exhibition Tomorrow is Another Day. The United States Pavilion's neoclassical architecture is modelled after the estate of former president Thomas Jefferson, who owned hundreds of black slaves during his life. Bradford had audiences enter the pavilion from the side—the entrance meant for servants or slaves.
Inside, five exhibition rooms showcased works that combined myths, grand historical narratives and personal experiences. Spoiled Foot (2017), for instance, has a texture meant to suggest the lesions caused by AIDS, and the narrow spaces left around his works aimed to replicate the marginalisation the artist experiences.
Bradford has exhibited around the world in group exhibitions and solo exhibitions.
Solo exhibitions include: Ágora, Serralves Foundation, Porto, Portugal (2021); Los Angeles, Long Museum, Shanghai (2019); Pickett's Charge, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C. (2017); Tears of a Tree, Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai (2015); Mark Bradford, Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston (2010); Neither New nor Correct, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2007);
Group exhibitions include: In Focus: LA Artists, Hauser & Wirth, Los Angeles (2021); Dirty Protest, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2019); An Incomplete History of Protest, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2018); Variations: Conversations in and Around Abstract Painting, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2014); Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London (2006); Freestyle, Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (2001).
Penny Liu | Ocula | 2021