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Mark Bradford’s tempestuous art

Abstraction gets personal at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles

George Pendle | June 29th 2015

Comparing a city to the body of a living creature is not uncommon. Peter Ackroyd advised those visiting London to “tread carefully over the pavements…for you are treading on skin.” But nowhere does this metaphor ring truer than in Los Angeles. On a good day the city’s trademark tangled freeways mimic the gushing arteries and veins of the body’s circulatory system. On a bad day they resemble nothing so much as the bunched and clogged gastrointestinal tract of a perennially constipated giant. But looking at Mark Bradford’s show of recent paintings at the Hammer Museum, one was granted a new view of the city, less as a living creature than as a dead one, splayed on the coroner’s table.

Bradford’s paintings are collages constructed of masses of layered paper and paint which he then cuts and sands away. It is a process of accretion and destruction that fills the canvas with caverns and ridges, fissures and scars, so that they seem both cartographical and biological at the same time, like some grisly autopsical relief map. “Dead Hummingbird” (2015, above) depicts a snarled red and white web in which the giant silhouette of a hummingbird has been caught and rests like a wound at its centre. Scale in these paintings seems to be constantly shifting. “Black and White” (2015) appears to depict a constellation that is as much microbial as it is celestial; indeed Bradford has admitted to being inspired by microscopic images of cells being infected with HIV. Cancerous clumps of black paper blossom peony-like on nearly all these new canvases. If this is the body of a dead giant, his name is Lesion.

The necrotic network of Bradford’s latest work traces the tempestuous events that have informed the artist’s own journey as a black, gay artist. Born in LA in 1961, Bradford’s mother owned a hair salon in which he worked as a stylist. After travelling in Europe he returned home and started art classes in his early 30s. His first collages actually co-opted hairdressing supplies, taking the endpapers used to wrap hair for perms, and layering them in hypnotic overlapping grids as if they were gold leaf. At times these canvases looked like the uneasy, urban cousins of those of the great modern minimalist, Agnes Martin. Bradford continues to take the everyday materials of his African-American neighbourhood and incorporate them into his abstract canvases, ripping down billposters from empty lots and tearing them into strips, which when glued together create a strangely rich spectrum of colour.

What sets him apart from many abstract painters, as this latest show attests, is that his work has always transcended painterly formalism and comes loaded with personal and political undercurrents. Bradford experienced both the LA riots and the AIDS crisis at first hand, and the gouged streets and desiccated veins of these paintings crackle with the power of these seismic events. Similarly, his massive mural of the United States in the museum’s lobby—which has been made by laboriously scraping at the wall, revealing slivers of the 29 artists’ projects to have appeared there previously—is bedecked with statistics about the number of people in each state with AIDS.

In the last decade, this mixture of bravura abstraction and political message has seen Bradford rocket to the upper echelons of the contemporary-art world. His work is immediately snapped up by museums, and on the rare occasion a canvas finds its way to auction it can expect to fetch up to $4m. Yet considering how much LA influences his work it is a surprise to discover that this is his first solo museum show in his hometown. For this, much credit must go to the Hammer Museum. It may not be the best-known art museum in Los Angeles—the LA County Museum of Art is grander, the Museum of Contemporary Art is flashier—but it has nevertheless established itself as a powerful lodestone for important and cutting-edge contemporary art in the city.

Mark Bradford: Scorched Earth Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, until September 27th

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