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Review: Mark Bradford at the Hammer Museum

Review: Mark Bradford at the Hammer Museum
Mark Bradford, "The Next Hot Line," 2015, mixed media (Hammer Museum)

A site-specific mural, a video installation and 12 new paintings comprise Mark Bradford's ruminative exhibition at the UCLA Hammer Museum, organized by curator Connie Butler. Together they form a kind of thumbnail sketch of the artist's varied artistic approaches since he began showing regularly in 2002, launched at the former Patricia Faure Gallery.

The wall mural in the Hammer's entry stairwell is a vast map of the United States. The contours of the 50 states are gouged into the wall, its surface sanded down to reveal ephemeral layers of earlier murals long-since painted over. Historical statistics recording HIV diagnoses are scratched into each of the union's states -- a dry accounting made physical. Forgotten bodily traumas appear only by ripping something away.

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"Spiderman," the video installation, transforms a small, darkened gallery into an intimate, shabbily lighted stage. Text that parodies a grotesquely homophobic, 32-year-old Eddie Murphy comedy routine (about which the entertainer later partly apologized) is projected on a wall, underscoring the transient spoken words.

The comedian in his red-leather track suit is vaporously evoked by crimson lighting. Bradford's language – the routine ricochets between shocking and absurd – hangs in the illuminated air. That the name of an adolescent superhero is the installation's title is telling, a mix of deep anxiety and flashy grandeur coursing through Bradford's seriocomic routine.

Bradford toils, here and elsewhere, in the congested intersection of popular culture and Conceptual art. An archaeology of memory, personal and cultural, is a primary thread running through it all. The work is labor-intensive, and it shows. Sweat-equity is a formal value.

The paintings are weathered abstractions. In them Bradford fuses collage with décollage, layering sheet upon sheet of printed and painted paper and then tearing them away, sometimes with a sharp blade and sometimes with random ruptures. Lines of tape have been laid down, covered over with collage and ripped up, often creating intricate networks of tracery.

Bradford also draws on the surface with a hand sander, creating linear tracks and visually stuttering spots. Sedimentary depths are exposed. Artists as diverse as painter Adam Ross, sculptor Jedediah Caesar and the late ceramicist Kenneth Price have also exploited the surprising bursts of otherwise hidden color that the sanding process can create. It's like letting inner light emerge.

An insistent addition and subtraction fight it out for supremacy. Control waltzes with serendipity. Bradford's surfaces are at once lacerated and caressed, tough yet fragile. They recall Abstract Expressionism of the 1940s and 1950s, especially Clyfford Still.

As in past works, several of these paintings recall maps – urban traceries merged with star charts. Some, such as "The Next Hot Line," are almost clinical, as if tracking the sinewy, internal tensions of muscle tissue and bodily ganglia. Others appear scabbed.

Three of the largest, most beautiful works are made on unstretched canvas tacked to the wall; hanging loose, the format emphasizes abstract painting's traditional allusion to skin. A few feature a large, black shape gouged out of the material, the most provocative a nectar-hungry hummingbird. Looming large in the painting, a delightful little bird casts an ominous shadow.

The show has powerful moments, but its drawback is that the suite of new paintings, made this year, isn't much different from what one would expect to see as a routine commercial gallery exhibition. The stairwell mural and video installation add breadth, and there's an accompanying book (although it doesn't fully chronicle the exhibition's contents.) Still, one expects a wider, more considered selection from a museum.

UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood, (310) 443-7000, through Sept. 27. Closed Monday. www.hammer.ucla.edu

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