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THE ART ISSUE

The Eye Of L.a. / Mark Bradford

A native son and rising art star immortalizes South Los Angeles' 'merchant class.' In Bradford's collages, Ernest Hardy sees the signs and the subtexts of everyday life, as multihued and multilingual as the place they come from.

June 11, 2006|Ernest Hardy | Ernest Hardy has written for Rolling Stone, Vibe, LA Weekly and the New York Times. He is also the author of "Blood Beats: Vol. 1: Demos, Remixes & Extended Versions," a collection of cultural criticism.

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.

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