Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford used to create signs for his mother's hair salon, where he later cut hair. Now, he creates art that's showing at the Dallas Museum of Art. He holds a BA and an MA from the California Institute of the Arts. But it's his studies in the world, the studies that began in his mother's shop, that ultimately inform his work.
The five-venue exhibition consists of forty piece, which is the first museum survey of his work. They draw from ten years of work, and most are enormous in size and statement.
There is a geometric sensibility to some of the early work, collages from permanent wave end papers like "But You Better Not Get Old" and "Smokey."
Bradford is a remarkably tall, thin man, 6' 8" in fact, handsome and pensive with black rimmed glasses. He's unassuming in the gallery, in jeans, a black t-shirt, and a black wind-breaker, even when he speaks of his work.
Olivier Meslay introduces Bradford at the preview. "You're nourished by yourself and your closed environment and yet you are so open to the world," he says to Bradford. The artist graciously, humbly accepts the praise. Bradford is without puff. He is an artist, no more, no less. And when he speaks, he speaks plainly.
"They are made of paper. But I consider them paintings," he says of his creations as he walks through them, sometimes stopping to look at them as if he's never seen them before. "Why paper? I knew I wanted to be involved in the history of painting but I didn't want to use paint."
Some of the pieces like "Scorched Earth" read like maps. Others read like charts or graphs.
He has trouble standing still when he talks, and he's never satisfied. He's only as good as his last work, he believes. What is is not enough--it's what drives his work. "I'm 6'8". Sometimes I don't want to be 6'8"," he says, hopping back and forth as he talks.
Bradford talks about how permanent wave papers became his material of choice. "Looking for material that I had some relationship to, that had some use, some cultural use. Mother had a hair salon so I was familiar with those female spaces. Started burning the edges because I couldn't see them, so I could articulate them."
But those wave papers are now part of his past. He explains, "I became known as this hairdresser, end paper guy. So I stopped. What could I use to talk about the body and still be about abstraction?" he both explains and asks.
Some of his pieces have the straightest of edges, some are curved and rough. "I tried using raw, un-stretched canvases. But then people said, 'Oh he's doing blah, blah, blah,'" Bradford explains with light exasperation. Once again, an attempt to define and confine him and so moves on. "You have to work your way around static meaning," he explains. "I don't steer myself around it. I just try to figure out how to dig out of it."
Christopher Bedford, Wexner Center for the Arts Curator of Exhibitions calls Bradford's work, "An outward looking pursuit that seeks to connect the body with the social." Bedford, curated Bradford's show at the Wexner and walked through the exhibit with Bradford at the preview.
Some of Bedford's explanations make Bradford turn shy. "History makes you sound really linear. That's not really how it happened," Bradford laughs.
You might mistake him for a kid who clawed his way out of the projects. But that's not his story. He always has been very aware of the world around him. Perhaps more now than ever. "When you have a career you tend to live in the public. You make your mistakes in the public," he explains.
That awareness has led him to the subjects and ideas he address in his work. "I have always been interested in people who live outside of the fabric of the norm." It also led him to explore early Abstractism despite the fact that it was not given its due when he was studying.
"Why was that considered bad? Why not un-package it? Why not? Who says? It's just a part of history. Why not reanimate it? We're really comfortable with abstraction in music but we didn't have this long history in visual arts. How many black abstract painters are there? Not many."
Bradford pauses when he uses the word black. He tries to say "African-American." But it simply isn't part of his history. "I grew up black. It's hard to keep changing. My grandmother says colored."
Bradford asks a lot of questions when he speaks. He asks them in his work as well, and that is the attraction. Not in the answers, (I don't believe that Bradford necessarily proposes to have any) but instead in the questions. He is fascinated with the why. "I look at art as a container. You can't get inside it so you have to ask all of these questions."
So much of Bradford's work was made in or directly-references New Orleans, including "Corner of Desire and Piety," "A Truly Rich Man is One Whose Children Run Into His Arms Even When His Hands Are Empty," and the "Ark," a project he did with the community there. But not without a great deal of consideration first.
"I'm not the guy who goes into a poor community and helps for two weeks and leaves. I'm an artist with everything and you don't have anything and can I take advantage of you. But the ark felt ok. On every level people were respected. Communities that have been decimated don't generally need art works, they need money."
Bradford first worked with a community project called L9, as in New Orleans' lower ninth ward. Then, people asked, "Wasn't there a project that you wanted to do?" At that point, Bradford, felt comfortable introducing the ark project.
At the DMA, Bradford shows only part of the piece because, Bradford explains, "The context was for that 100 days" in New Orleans. "Half of it is fine because it's a sculptural detail of the moment."
Seeing Bradford's work, I can't help but think about bell hooks', "Straightening Our Hair." Everything is political, I am reminded by her essay about how even an act as simple as straightening one's hair when one is African American hair is a social commentary, a political statement.
hooks explains, "The reality is: straightened hair is linked historically and currently to a system of racial domination that impresses upon black people, and especially black women, that we are not acceptable as we are, that we are not beautiful. To make such a gesture as an expression of individual freedom and choice would make me complicit with a politic of domination that hurts us."
hooks won't straightening her hair. Bradford won't sit still long enough to be pinned down. "The power doesn't have to be visible in order to control," Bradford says. Indeed. And that power, that invisible power that constantly threatens not just dismissal through defining, but also disapproval, keeps Bradford generating the kind of powerful work present in this show.
"I'm kind of an insecure artist. I hop from piece to piece. I always think my life depends on every painting. Every painting is my first painting. It's not Rodin's thinker. I run back and forth. This is it. This is not going to be good. This is the beginning of the end. I'm not a believer. I run around. In my small studio I kept hitting the walls. I'm not good at sitting still."
The work is dark and damaged in many ways. It's pieced and sanded and architected into being. Other pieces are more literal. A basketball on a stand ("Kobe I Got Your Back"), a crow with his beak in the wall ("Crow"), a bag of string ("Bag of Tricks"), a stack of posters ("Hannibal"). But it's also hopeful and determined. Bright colors, strong words, powerful images reign.
There is a great deal of movement in the pieces. They are almost frenetic in their stillness on the way. They dart and arc and bound. You can see Bradford in them, chasing truth, revealing meaning, questioning what is, examining what could be. The materials and the processes are as much a part of the work as the final pieces themselves. The message is in the making.
Down the hall from the main exhibit is a piece titled "Pinocchio on Fire." The piece is an installation, a dark room with bare bulbs hanging and black shapes seemingly taped off on the walls. The shapes and sizes are irregular. This is not a study in bricklaying. It's a study in disconnect.
"I like language. But there's no body. It's kind of comedic in a way. I was always fascinated by Pinocchio. If you misbehave, this is what happens. If you behave, this is what happens. But [life's] not about good and bad. It's about a body that navigates. It's about humanness. I don't look at things in black and white.
There are big gray areas. There's a lot of slippage. It's bits. It's the cereal not the milk. I love language and stories. That I learned in the beauty shop, and they don't talk about men as much as you think. They talk about themselves."
We all talk about ourselves. We talk about ourselves when we use language. But we also make statements when we don't talk. What we drive. What we wear. How we vote. All of those things are markers about who we are. They are tells. And no matter how we might try to contradict them or explain them away, they cannot be undone.
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Mark Bradford talks about himself in all of these pieces. He tells things he may not intend. But they are there. And in talking about himself, in revealing what perhaps only his art could reveal, he's talking about us, he's revealing us, all of us, too.
What we don't mean to say sometimes says it all.
See the show at the Dallas Museum of Art through January 15. Mark Bradford is clearly one to watch.