08 April 2015

Mark Bradford’s path proceeds from a beauty salon in Los Angeles into the major exhibition venues of the United States. His large-format paintings and collages have a great deal in common with the Affichistes.

By Katharina Cichosch

At an age at which other up-and-coming artists-to-be are already planning their way into the galleries and collections of major cities, Mark Bradford is standing in his mother's beauty salon in Leimert Park, a famous Afro-American neighborhood in South Los Angeles, and blow-drying the customers' hair. Bradford is born In Leimert Park in 1961 and lives here until he is eleven before he and his mother move; yet she returns daily to work in the salon. It was not until he had turned thirty that the multi-award-winning artist enrolls in the California Institute of the Arts, completing his art studies seven years later. Prior to that, there were other things to do--celebrating parties, for example: growing up in the 1980s, this decade between boundless hedonism and ever-lurking death in which AIDS enters our mass consciousness, exercised a strong influence on the young Afro-American, who as a homosexual did not want to delude himself: "It was very much 'the bad people got this disease.' The people who were bad people, fringe people, gay people, people who didn't care about the rules. So I thought, well, that would be me," is how he describes the morbid decade in which the immunodeficiency became an epidemic in an interview with "ZOO Magazine."

The ensuing decade is better fated--Mark Bradford leaves the clubs and bars behind and enrolls in art school. And although he had never envisioned a career as an artist, this path seems logical after all: Bradford had always drawn, he made his first small films while still in elementary school, and friends and acquaintances met in his mother's beauty salon who created individual identities for themselves with imaginative costumes--perhaps a parallel to ballroom culture or the Afro-American gay community in New York. Bradford's studies saw the belated theoretical foundation of his life praxis, so to speak; the observations he made in his everyday life as an Afro-American and gay man. His first works to be exhibited publicly still deal quite directly with the issues of race and class--in 2002, Bradford created a walk-in installation called "Foxyé Hair" in which visitors could have their hair done--a tribute to the beauty salon in which he had worked so many years and at the same time an examination of the predominantly white standards of beauty that many female Afro-Americans emulated in their desire for straight hair.

The City as an Abstract Construct

As a declared proponent of abstraction, Mark Bedford soon distances himself however not only formally but also thematically from clear classifications. He became known for his large-format works that avail themselves both of the techniques of painting as well as (dé)-collage, and which quickly earn him a great deal of attention. Much like the Affichistes before him, Bradford uses the urban poster as a point of departure and processes it until only little is reminiscent of its original state. The artist occasionally scratches the layer of a poster until all that is left is an abstract network of lines--lines and ramifications that almost unavoidably evoke associations of mapped metropolises, in particular of Bradford's beloved, quasi-decentered Los Angeles. In other works, Bradford has individual details, such as lettering or a basketball, stand out. Based on this he develops visually complex pictures that are created out of numerous levels and with the techniques of collage, décollage, and painting. They operate like urban narratives that time and again expose their point of departure, the city--only to again evade an all too visual language moments later.

Mark Bradford is in his mid-forties before he gains the attention that his artistic work deserved--if one would even like to introduce a category such as justice into the art business. One clearly notices the experiences and contradictions in his pictures that a life entails that is beyond an artistic career long since thoroughly organized in terms of marketing strategies. Bradford also sees an emancipatory element in his decision in favor of abstraction--because according to the artist in the same interview in "ZOO Magazine," this pictorial language is simply a white one through and through. By appropriating it, he liberates himself from the purported limitations of an Afro-American artist that are often not only imposed from the outside but at the same time are frequently also adopted as a positive element that creates a sense of identity.

And while Bradford time and again scrutinizes his position within highly diverse societies and worlds, in the gay community or the black community, in the United States or the art business, and successfully evades clear classifications, his striking pictures tell urban stories that consciously allow a lot of space for interpretations--and which becomes all the greater if one adds the often narrative titles such as "Bread and Circuses" or "A Truly Rich Man Is One Whose Children Run into His Arms Even When His Hands Are Empty." Besides paintings, installations, sculptures, and films, Mark Bradford also works at the interface between social involvement and art: the meanwhile multi-award-winning artist founded Art + Practice in his old neighborhood of Leimert Park together with Eileen Harris Norton and Allan Dicastro, an initiative that is meant to make it easier for young foster children make the transition into adulthood through art projects as well as through the communication of concrete skills. He is often also there himself: when his mother retired, he took over her beauty shop and turned it into his studio.