An early-morning, pre-rush-hour walk through the multiracial, multilingual South Los Angeles neighborhood of abstract expressionist artist Mark Bradford, hometown boy made good on the international art scene, reveals the working-class sensibilities and mashed-up cultural influences that shaped his childhood and that continue to shape his work. A Korean body shop stands across the street from a taco & burger joint, which sits kitty-corner from a flower shop with signs in both English and Espanol. On the same hectic thoroughfare are a storefront psychic, unisex hair salon, $1 Chinese Food stand, Blockbuster video store, Korean acupuncture clinic and a record shop whose lopsidedly handwritten sign reads “Especial: 4 CDs por $2/Herbalife De Venta Aqui.” Colorful litter, the detritus of assorted cultural and economic exchanges--dirty yellow straws, slivers of red plastic cups, tattered pink balloons, flattened ketchup packets--flowers the sidewalk. This is the contemporary version of the rich merchant culture in which Bradford was raised by his mother and grandmother, women whose fierce work ethic and professional ingenuity are now manifested in Bradford’s own creative expression. It’s also the DNA for his critically acclaimed collages, videos, photographs and installations, in which issues of class, off-the-books commerce, race, gender and sexuality are abstracted for clarity, turned into art through Afro-American alchemy.
A few blocks over, on a quiet residential street, is Bradford’s temporary studio. A way station between his old digs on West Boulevard and a new space being built in Leimert Park, it dominates the top floor of a massive turn-of-the-century house owned by a friend. It’s one of those grand old Los Angeles homes that speaks of a bygone era’s opulence and careful attention to architectural detail and craftsmanship. The third floor, a former ballroom turned workspace, is spacious but filled with an artist’s clutter: paint-splattered tables, piles and piles of posters and handwritten signs that have been gathered from telephone poles and fences. A collage in progress stands on a small table, propped against a wall.
And stretching the length of the cavernous room is his latest project, “Ridin’ Dirty,” an ambitiously sprawling mural for the Sao Paulo Bienal later this year. “The goal of the piece,” he says, “is to make the viewer feel the presence of global ‘ghost economies,’ cities covered with rectangles of paper made identical by visual hyper-local communication.” It already measures 15 by 25 feet, but Bradford says he wants it “larger, much larger.”
Asked to break down his creative process, he answers thoughtfully, “Merchant posters are gathered here in South Los Angeles. I then trace the outline of the text--bits of words or phrases--with mason string, otherwise known as snapline. After the text has been traced and the entire surface covered with billboard paper, I go back to recover some areas, which are never the same on second encounter.”
“Unearth,” he explains, “as in sand the hell out of the surface with a sander to try and retrieve what I just covered up. But I know that I will not be able to retrieve everything. It’s about loss as well as discovery.”
When asked if he’s seeking answers or revealing truths, he answers simply, “Both.”
Bradford’s gorgeously informal formalism was present from the start of his career. His media-hyped professional mythology is rooted in the fact that as a young artist, freshly matriculated with an MFA from CalArts in 1997, he used the tools of his mother’s beauty salon trade to create his dynamic early pieces. (He also worked at her salon for a while.) His mediums were hair dyes and end papers, the small rectangular tissues folded over the ends of hair during the perming process. The collages that arose from his use of those beauty supply staples look like city grids as viewed from overhead, with pockets of color denoting population density or urban zones, or something perhaps less tangible, more ephemeral.
The catalog for “Very Powerful Lords,” a 2003 solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art at Altria, notes that “in Bradford’s earlier works, his material sources and the textured, slightly scarred surface of the paintings suggested a type of skin. . . . In the more recent paintings, however, the elegant spatial depth of his delicate, jittery grids has become increasingly interrupted by found-object elements--print media such as magazine images or poster text--that disrupt the purity of the painted surface and fix his works more firmly to specific material connotations. . . . Bradford’s paintings have become increasingly scaled to the architectural environment . . . his more current work more closely occupies the realm of the mural.”
Some of that current work found a natural home in this year’s Whitney Biennial, whose “Day for Night” theme, according to press notes accompanying the exhibition, was “not merely a selection of important works, but important works that reveal overwhelming evidence of certain artistic responses to a broad range of aesthetic, social, political and cultural phenomena.” The exhibition itself garnered typically mixed reviews, but Bradford--whose large-scale “Los Moscos” (2004) and an untitled canvas (2005) were included--earned nearly universal raves. He also won the 2006 Bucksbaum Award, a $100,000 prize given by the Bucksbaum Family Foundation and the Whitney Museum to an artist whose work is shown at that year’s Biennial. (“I thought, ‘C’mon! For real? Really?’ ” he says when asked about his reaction to winning the prize. “Then I went back to work.”)
But his greatest professional triumph might have been catching the eye and earning the praise of Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem and a former curator at the Whitney. Bradford considers her “a legend, a true historical figure.” And he says with a laugh, “I’m forever grateful to Miss Golden for getting me from behind that pressing comb.” An art world celebrity and force to be reckoned with in her own right, Golden is a huge champion of Bradford’s work. She included his end-paper collages “Enter and Exit the New Negro” (2000) and “Dreadlocks caint tell me shit” (2000) in the breakthrough “Freestyle” exhibition of 28 African American artists at the Studio Museum in 2001.
“When I saw Mark’s paintings,” Golden says by phone from her office in Harlem, “I was amazed by the very elegant but raw quality. They felt very emotional, very immediate. But also so beautifully considered. . . . After that, I came to know his photographic work, the performative work and the way in which Mark really lives his practice.”
“Freestyle” not only introduced Bradford and other now hot-ticket artists, but also the controversial term “post-black,” which Golden coined to describe their work. The term ignited a firestorm of media debate over what it might mean, and whether it was proof that the art world--and a lot of black folks in it--operated at an intellectual’s cool remove from black life beyond museum walls, art gallery openings and academic conferences. That it was slightly tongue-in-cheek was never fully conveyed, and the storm whirled with questions: Who gets to define what black is and what black ain’t? What the hell is post-black?
Bradford admits that he “kind of read it a little wrong in the beginning. I thought it meant after formalism, after formal equations. And I think it kind of does mean that. . . . To me, the fact that it was controversial--that was what was post-black. The conversation around the controversy was post-black. Just showing that we, black people, don’t speak in a uni-vocal voice, that there is dissent and debate.”
But the term is still a flash point, and Bradford sometimes finds himself the object of lingering fury. “Sometimes,” he says wearily, someone in the audience at panels or openings “will raise their hand and you immediately know that they have an issue with post-black. You immediately know, and sometimes they’re antagonistic. I don’t really respond to antagonism, anger or hostility because basically that’s [the other person] saying, ‘Look, I’ve judged you and you need to respond to my judgment of you.’ Well, no one has that power over me. Are you kidding? That would be giving you the power. And I just don’t do that. I understand that you’re upset. And you need to understand that I don’t care. See, it’s not about if people like or dislike post-black. It’s that we all find a way to sit at the table, and that the power at the table gets dismantled and dispersed throughout. Because power, to be centered, has to swim in blood"--meaning someone has to be sacrificed. “Not my blood. No way.”
Mark Bradford is a very tall man. Tall and thin. Regal but completely down to earth. He has a broad, warm smile and a laugh that spirals straight from the gut. He’s wickedly funny (especially off the record) but can toggle quickly into intense, no-nonsense mode. He’s a hybrid of intellectual rigor and vigor and Negro mother wit, peppering his conversation with theory-laden vocabulary (“I’m mapping my own subjectivity”) and colloquialisms (“I like things that look mammy-made, where you can see the hand in the work”), the effect of which is to remind you that the two are parallel, not polar. His speaking manner is similarly bifurcated, veering from haltingly thoughtful to a rush of words and ideas tumbling over one another so quickly that he can barely keep up with himself.
Still, the 44-year-old artist is an intensely private man who won’t divulge much about his own life or that of his family; he even declines to make his mother available for an interview or to give his exact height. (“Because then it becomes about the personal narrative, which it always does with black artists, and the art itself becomes a secondary consideration,” he says.) He does, however, part with a few biographical details that shed light on the issues that appear and reappear in his work.
“People made too much of the hairdresser thing,” he says, smiling, obviously very over that origin story, “but what I was trying to do was show that merchants go all the way back to ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ all the way back to the Bible. I came from merchants. My mom was a merchant. I was a merchant. My grandmother was a merchant. For four generations, we haven’t worked for anybody but ourselves. We’ve been a seamstress, a hairdresser, a mechanic. We always had a black business in a black neighborhood.”
He pauses, then says, “Come outside with me, I want to show you something.”
We make our way down the impossibly narrow staircase leading from the third-floor studio to the second floor, then down to the first floor and out the front door. “See that house on the corner there?” Bradford asks, pointing to a gargantuan white house at the top of the street. “That’s where I grew up. Isn’t that something, that my studio would be down the block from where I grew up?
“My mother was from Philadelphia,” he says as he settles on a porch bench. “It was unusual in the ‘70s and ‘80s for a black woman to come to L.A. and not already have people out here, but she did. And she moved into that boardinghouse, and they kind of adopted us. The woman who I call my grandmother is actually the woman who owned that house. She also did hair. But get this, my biological grandmother, who died when I was 3, also was a hairdresser.” He chuckles.
“This whole area was full of boardinghouses back then, all of it,” he says. “We lived in that house on the corner, and my mom’s salon was on Washington and Western. I knew every merchant. All the kids of all the merchants were the same way. The boardinghouse was where I met most of the people who are my friends to this day. They’re like my sisters. The boarders were really mothers with children. That movie ‘Lackawanna Blues’?"--a coming-of-age story set in a New York boarding house--"That was me. And I understood that I lived in a subculture.”
Bradford and his mother moved to Santa Monica when he was 11, but she still maintained her business in the old neighborhood.
“As a merchant,” he says, “you service the sub-class, the working class and the professional class, but you really don’t belong to any of them. You just float. You really are of yourself, and that was really great for me early on. I didn’t have the middle-class burden. When you’re living in a boardinghouse, you just simply are not living by middle-class rules. My mother never did. So that gave me a lot of freedom.”
He shakes his head and sighs. “The funny thing is that this subculture gets a bad rap. It’s always criminality, hustlers and so forth. It’s always negative. Most of the people I grew up with and who were my role models never worked in what you would call private industry. They sold shoes out of the back of cars, sold dinners, shined shoes. But everybody paid their bills. But when people would move into this area and try to describe it, their descriptions would always be full of pimps and hustlers, basically criminality. Is it possible to be black, to not work for anybody and not be a criminal? Will this American Dream let us have that? I think some of what I do in my work is trying to recover all that because I came from a very specific subculture and it gets so misrepresented.”
A car drives by and a preteen girl with long braids, riding on her bike, yells over her shoulder to a younger boy, also on a bike and having trouble staying upright, to watch for cars behind him. The boy seems to have enough trouble with the road in front of him. Bradford vaults from past to present.
“Then, later, I ran into new merchants and new contractors, and they were more Latino,” he observes. “Most of the businesses, black men with trucks, are now Latino men with trucks. It transferred from my mother’s generation to me, but then it also transferred to Latino. Which I’m OK with. I mean, it just happens. So that whole sector of what I understand"--merchant culture--"is more Latino now. But I don’t really care about the color. I understand the exchange. I understand the dynamic. I understand it because I come from it as a child. There’s a part of me that understands people trying to make a way in that gray area of what’s visible and invisible.”
In his collages--open-ended commentary on the lives of the multihued and many-accented locals around him--Bradford grapples with what transpires in public space between individuals and between communities, between formal and informal sectors. He tries to illuminate that which is consciously and unconsciously absorbed in that shared space, that which is conveyed through and behind the signs, images and advertising text on which our eyes fall. What, in terms of history and culture, is beneath that which we walk or drive past every day, sometimes barely noticing? How do we unlock all or even some of the meanings and interpretations that a single image or object may contain, given the many personal filters that process it?
In answering, Bradford goes over to the nascent Sao Paulo mural and points to the various signs that are already mounted on the canvas. They’re under a thin layer of white paper, but their wording is still visible.
“These are very clearly speaking to the needs of the community who are passing by every day,” he says. “It’s not like popular culture, where it’s all globalized. This is very localized. And what’s fascinating about it is that it changes so rapidly, like"--he touches each sign as he reads off its message --"Transitional Housing, Sober Living, Cash for Your Homes. That’s something that’s come about in the last year. Now, in two or three years in the community, there are going to be other needs and other parasitic systems that are going to come and take advantage of them. It’s in a constant state of crisis here, a constant state of fluidity.”
He pushes that explanation deeper in answering the question of whether he ever simply makes the signs or posters he needs rather than hitting the pavement to find them.
“I tried,” he admits, crossing to the other side of the room and rummaging through a pile of discarded placards. “I felt like I didn’t have enough of a certain kind, and I made one to see if it would have the same feeling.” He holds up one that he created. “This one says Child Custody.” He falls silent, staring at it for a second before continuing. “They just feel different. The weight’s different. It’s first use, and I don’t like things that are first use. I like things that are second use. If I make the signage, then it becomes art production, like for a film. It becomes set design. I don’t want that. I want it to actually have the memories--the cultural and personal memories that are lodged in the object.”
Given the changing (if not already changed) demographic of L.A. neighborhoods and cultural strongholds that have shifted from black to brown or some sort of mix, and given how that shift reconfigures the advertising and manifestations of culture in these areas, how has his work been affected?
“That’s a conversation that I’m really, really interested in,” he says. “I find that the politics of South L.A. are old-fashioned. They’re not keeping up, really, with what’s going on in public space. I think that has something to do with the record industry, where they keep reinforcing this romantic narrative of South Central being this black, crime-ridden, gangster, Suge Knight, West Coast thing, when in actuality it’s as brown as it is black. What’s interesting for me visually is the relationship between two things: signage and public space, the way it’s used. African American people, because of certain covenants, because of certain laws, were not allowed to gather. So, as far as merchant culture, you didn’t see too many black people occupying public space. What we had, up through the ‘70s and ‘80s, was a lot of networks through businesses. You could buy anything in a beauty shop. You could buy anything in a barbershop. You could buy anything out of the back of a car. . . .
“What’s really interesting to me, as you sort of fast-forward to public space now, is that Latin people have brought so much of their aesthetic and so much of the way they occupy public space from across the border--the way they sell pupusas, the hand-painted signage. The density in the way they use public space has exploded the public domain. It’s so active with bodies selling and trading, much more active than when I was growing up. I really find that interesting. I find that it changes the palette. I’m out pulling down signs, and one day I realize that I’m pulling down signs that are in Spanish--Cucarachas, Divorcio y Custodia. You immediately understand that a shift has happened. There were no bells and whistles, it just became part of the fabric. And that’s what always fascinates me, how this fluidity simply happens. I think that it creates another layer to public space, and we’re having a conversation about public space in a different way than I think we have had before in the African American community.”
Getting folks to think and talk about public space and how it is occupied isn’t limited to the jostling of Afro-American culture against other cultures or traditions. Sometimes it’s an internal shake-up he’s after. In his slow-motion video loop “Niagara” (2005), inspired by the Marilyn Monroe film of the same title, a slightly chunky black man clad in shorts and a tank top walks down an inner-city street. What makes the image pop is the pronounced sashay in the walker’s stride--as his arms swing loosely, so do his hips. You don’t have to look too closely to recognize that he’s the perceived queen/sissy/punk simply laying claim to the hood, to the streets he calls home. It’s a walk in defiance of projected expectation, cultural myths and homophobia-tinted reality.
I ask if there was that much sway naturally, or if it is an effect of the slowed motion.
“Oh, that’s Melvin,” Bradford says, laughing uproariously and identifying the neighborhood figure. “We very clearly talked about it, what I was going to do with it. Every time he walked, I paid him. And Melvin will sometimes come knocking on my door. ‘You want me to walk?’” More laughter. “‘No, Melvin, I’m cool with that.’ And sometimes we couldn’t walk because there’d be thugs around, so we had to negotiate our shooting space. You learn, when you’re other, how to negotiate. You just do. It’s that simple. And the negotiation comes not because you’re scared or less smart. It’s because you don’t want to get beat up or killed.”
I read him an excerpt from a review of the video in which Melvin is described as a street hustler. Bradford folds his arms across his chest and exhales. A lovely and loving portrait has been gutted, and that which is complicated, even transgressive, has been reduced to a familiar boogeyman.
“Well,” he says, “criminality is sexy, isn’t it? Titillating. I was fascinated by Melvin because I had never seen anybody occupy public space in that area like him. That’s just Melvin. That’s just how Melvin walks. He just does his thing. I’m always looking for these small details of subjects who are dynamic, more fluid, within that sort of sub-class/working-class domain. And when it would get too tough, Melvin would walk with a baseball bat. Yeah, Melvin’s tough.” But he’s not a street hustler.
Bradford’s video work is still experimental, but it’s palpably more personal than his collages. While the canvas allows Bradford to essay his intellectual interests, social concerns and painstaking craftsmanship, the video camera seems to force a more intense scrutiny, a rawer honesty, from the artist. Spend even a short amount of time with him, and it becomes clear that he puts premium value on truth and courage, in himself and in others. And he delights in shattering icons as much as he does stereotypes. When he’s behind--and before--the camera, he works with the diligence of a no-holds-barred documentary filmmaker, homing in on elusive truths, holding himself and the world around him up for unblinking examination.
In “Practice” (2003), Bradford--who’s tall enough to give any NBA star a run for his money--performs in a severely modified Lakers uniform: The familiar jersey top gives way to a billowing hoop skirt. He dribbles a basketball, moving down the court with great difficulty as the fabric and the contraption around his waist that suspends the skirt’s hoops impede his movement. He stumbles and falls repeatedly.
“‘Practice’ was a personal piece,” he says, smiling broadly. “At its core it was about negotiation and desire. I set up a proposition, a metaphor, in which I really simply wanted to play basketball. That’s it. But I had constructed this huge structure that was going to encumber me. I couldn’t control it, and doing what I wanted to do was a struggle. In some ways, that’s sort of how my life can be. I also knew that by taking the Lakers uniform and making it into a dress, that’s iconoclastic. I’m always interested in dismantling or questioning our icons. I want to make them problematic, awkward and uncomfortable.”
It’s an in-house shake-up, I suggest, disconcerting and even shocking.
“It is,” he says. “And the reason why I think it is shocking is that it’s really easy to critique whiteness--we’ve been trained to do that--but critiquing blackness, getting that personal, is likely to take you someplace you don’t want to go.”
The dynamics of community, the way it can both sustain and strangle its inhabitants, the negotiation of position and power within it--in terms of race, gender, sexuality and economic status--are what fuels Bradford’s work. When asked if it ever concerns him that the people whose lives and issues inform his art, though maybe living only a matter of miles away from the museums and galleries that show him, are in many ways light years away from those establishments and often unlikely to see any of his work, he flips the question.
“What will be interesting is--" He pauses a beat before continuing. “I’ve thought about what you do with the currency, because there is a certain amount of currency and quote/unquote power that comes with showing at LACMA, showing at the Whitney. It stacks up a certain credibility to some people. At the same time, it also--I feel, in my case--could possibly shift the dynamic of power. For instance, my new studio will be in Leimert Park. And I specifically knew that I wanted my studio in no other place but Leimert Park. It’s sort of the cultural bastion of a kind of Afrocentricism. It’s the only area that people point to and say, ‘That’s where the black art is. Local black art goes there.’ And I need to insert myself in that conversation. I need to insert my studio in that conversation. I need to insert all these sort of postmodern hybrid theories in that conversation, almost like a rocket just hitting into it. And I think that vibration--my association with the area, their association with my open studio--" He pauses again.
“I haven’t yet figured it all out, but I know that’s sort of the first step in inserting myself into a kind of local flow. And not because I feel like it’s a responsibility, but because it’s just something that I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always been very interested in bridging.”
Bridge building. It brings to mind an anecdote shared by Thelma Golden.
“My vision of Mark, always, is that of him on the night of the Biennial,” she says warmly. “I had a very typical Mark experience in that I was standing my 5 feet [tall self] in the crowd, couldn’t see anyone, couldn’t see anything. And Mark, sort of standing over it all, saw me and indicated where everyone else was. That’s how I think of Mark--kind of standing above and looking out there, being able to pull it all into him, all into his world.”
Mark Bradford’s “Market>Place” (2006) is on view in “Consider This . . . ,” a LACMALab exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through January.