A must-see for anyone engaged with contemporary at the simply titled, Mark Bradford mid-career retrospective of artist manages to communicate the highlights and the spirit of the American artist.
I remain astonished that this important retrospective, organized by the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University has only been shown at SFMOMA, despite Bradford’s inexplicable ties to the city of Los Angeles. Growing up in the working class immigrant neighborhoods of East Los Angeles, the city’s visual language—posters advertising gun shows or bridal expos, chain link fences, graffiti scrawl and comic books are not only present but ingrained in each of the works on display.
Where Bradford succeeds is blending the uniquely personal with an accessibility and reliability. Although the exhibition generally allows the work to speak for itself, the paintings are tired closely to the artist’s biography, a technique often dated and predictable, but with Bradford surprisingly fresh, engaging and meaningful. Black and gay, Bradford manages to uniquely address his position in these at times conflicting social roles and also supersede and reduction of his work as a political statement.
In order to give a comprehensive survey of the artist’s career, the exhibition remains mostly chronological, Bradford’s early “paintings,” large-scale canvases painted with hair dye and curling papers from his mother’s beauty shop are open up an interesting aesthetic dialogue with Minimalism. Showing the multi-media nature of his work, the following gallery space projects Bradford’s film, Niagara, which succeeds, with poignant humor, addressing stereotypes and expectations surrounding race and gender. These themes, along with the aforementioned articulation of a contemporary urban experience are further explored in his large scale, collage paintings, including A Truly Rich Man . . . (2008) and The Devil is Beating His Wife. At times, Bradford comes more overtly political, James Brown is Dead and Scorched Earth (2006) express a harsher statement towards the status quo. Yet blackness and sexual identity are not so much subjects of Bradford’s work even to call them lenses through which he engages with the world would be inaccurate. Instead, by existing outside the realm of political art, Bradford is able to engage all audiences on multiple levels, allowing a layered and complicated reading of the work.
Lastly, the exhibition challenges former assumption about the artist as a painter of oversized, Abstract Expressionist-like canvases. The final piece in the show, Pinocchio is on Fire (2010) is a multi-media installation—a small room entirely covered in black carpeting with two low cushions placed on the floor inside. Nancy Wilson’s To Tell the Truth loops, outside the space, a series of re-purposed LP covers and a self-narration that plays via transistor radio. Collaging the two sources of audio generates an at times senseless, confusing experience, that at times is clear and serene, at others as mundane as listening to the daily news but more frequently an acute focus on daily life, and the assumptions we take with it.
The exhibition is open through June 17 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, California.
For further information and for interactive features around some of the paintings in the exhibition see the exhibition website