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."