In the way that Noah Purifoy’s assemblage-based art had its source in the Watts Rebellion of 1965, Mark Bradford’s artistic practice can be understood to have had its roots in the backlash after the Rodney King beatings in 1992, which Bradford experienced as a young man working in his mother’s beauty shop in South L.A. For a gay, black youth, the police brutality and resulting race riots, which came at a time when he saw the AIDS epidemic running rampant around him, exerted an indelible formative influence. Since 2001, when Bradford emerged as a fully mature artist, his art has addressed injustice to African Americans, gays and women in an extension of the “Identity Politics” of the art of the late ’80s and early ’90s, but which Bradford has made his own through a distinctive working method and unique integration of abstract painting with political and social commentary.
A vast map of the United States, its contours gouged into the wall and its surface “excavated” to reveal layers of drywall and previous wall murals below, greets the visitor to Bradford’s Hammer exhibition, which is, remarkably, the first solo museum show in L.A. devoted to this artist of international acclaim. Each state is inscribed with a number that represents its reported number of HIV cases through the end of 2009. Bradford has explained that part of his motivation in this piece was to draw a parallel between the one-time victimization of people with AIDS and the similar mistreatment (and misrepresentation by the media) that he witnessed of Africans suffering the ravages of Ebola.
The theme of AIDS and bodily infection continued in the exhibition in a new series of gorgeous, animated and intricately worked collage paintings produced in Bradford’s characteristic manner. This involves the building up the surface of the painting by layering paper (often ten to fifteen sheets of different types–plain, printed, newspaper, etc.) on canvas and then going at the surface with power sanders and other tools to variously expose the underlayers. At an exhibition walk-through, Bradford explained that to produce these new works, with their vast networks of linear and starburst tracings and extensive use of a blood-red tone, he looked through a microscope to see cell structures before and after HIV infection. He continued, “I wanted a vascular feeling to the whole show. And lacerated–like Fontana on LSD–to feel the skin splayed open.”
While the Italian artist Lucio Fontana is well known for having sliced through his canvas surfaces (his intention being to open the work up to a spiritual space), a more apt precedent for Bradford’s paintings can be found in the work of another Italian, Alberto Burri. Burri, a medical doctor who was interned in Texas during W.W. II, assembled paintings from burlap and other found fabrics in such a way as to form a skin with blood-red wounds visible below in an effort to explore the pains of war. As is typical of Bradford’s work, however, as much as his paintings suggest a body’s interior structure, they also evoke topographical maps, so that the viewer is offered simultaneously an interior and world view–the self and others.
Three other paintings in the show, produced by a different method, were of looming and dramatic presence and seemed to hint at representation (bodily imagery and/or a tree). Tacked directly to the wall, they were Japanese-inspired pieces made from expanses of heavy black paper that Bradford wet, dried and stripped down. All were ravaged in appearance and feel and evoked the “scorched earth” quality reiterated in the exhibition’s title. (“Scorched Earth” first appeared in his art as the name of a painting of 2006 inspired by the devastating Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.)
Bradford’s personal crusade against injustice was further manifested in the audio piece with projected text, Spiderman (2015), installed in a darkened gallery. Conceived as a response to Eddie Murphy’s rampantly homophobic concert film Delirious of 1983, Bradford assumes the voice of a transgender (woman to man) comic who exploits and exposes prejudice.
Mark Bradford: Scorched Earth will be on view at the Hammer Museum through September 27, 2015.