Project Series 16: Mark Bradford
For the last several years, Mark Bradford has explored the relationships among class, culture, and identity in a wide range of work including his signature textile paintings, “ghetto-fabulous” photographic portraits, and fabricated sculptures. Interested in process, permanence, and temporality, he brings together his experiences as an artist, a “beauty operator,” and a cultural historian. Bradford links the art-historical traditions of Minimal Abstraction with a pop-culture look at black aesthetics.
For this exhibition, Bradford presents a new large-scale painting that incorporates the sticky processes of black hair styling played against the jittery components of a modernist grid. In Bradford’s paintings, color is at once abstract and personal. The artist uses material associated with the beauty industry—hair end-papers for permanents provide both the texture and the formal structure, while cellophane hair-color gives the canvases their incandescent hues.
In the past, Bradford’s paintings combined end-papers with a monochromatic tone that, in discussions of his work, many have situated in the abstract tradition of the Minimalist painters Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, or Brice Marden. His newer work uses color much more forcefully, and he now includes collaged material such as text from flyers found in his neighborhood, torn strips of posters, and ink stamps. By including these references to hip-hop culture and street life, Bradford extends the discourse of modernism by injecting it with a vernacular context.
Mark Bradford’s exhibition is the sixteenth in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series, an ongoing program of small exhibitions that brings to the Pomona College campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts.
Eugenie Joo's Interview
He moved me. Twice. First it was at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco: luminous canvases with both an eerie translucency and an unrelenting textural and textual physicality. There was a story below the surface that intrigued me and made me a little sad. I will always remember that first encounter.
By the time I saw his works in Thelma Golden’s Freestyle exhibition, I was a fan. I began to hear a lot about the artist as an individual: “You have to meet Mark Bradford.” “He was like a model.” “Mark’s a trip.” We finally met at his opening at Lombard Freid Gallery last fall. At 6’ 8", immaculately groomed with radiantly clear skin, Bradford is a stunning presence. And smiles and laughter, and kind, generous eyes; a warm and candid demeanor.
But that’s not it. Thing is, as the night wore on, we got to talking about a series of photographs he was then working on, weaving Chinese hair marketed to Black women imported and sold by Korean immigrant merchants onto Korean American women’s heads. And he asks, “Are you Korean?” with strange delight, eyeing me like a chinkified Barbie dream station head. I probably sucked my teeth or rolled my eyes. The exchange that followed was as much gesture and response as language, but we got to talking about the history of the trade class in Los Angeles that infuses his thinking, and Bradford’s thoughtful criticality opened up a larger discussion that we continue to this day.
The following interview was conducted over the Internet and telephone as summer turned to fall, 2002.
EUNGIE JOO: Your work seems intrigued by the history of Los Angeles. A history of Los Angeles. When we last spoke, you were teaching me a little about the ongoing presence of a migrant trade class and the implications of its historical presence on the makeup of the city. I know that in some ways this is your own personal history as a tradesperson, but also in your art this history seems always to ghost your work. Can you tell me a little about this history and its currency with regard to your current project?
MARK BRADFORD: As an artist, I became interested in the aesthetic of the people who stayed within the black community, within the city. Until about 1950, Central Avenue and the southeast part of the city were the only places blacks, and for that matter, Mexicans could live. The housing covenants started lifting and the middle class fled to the northern and western parts of the city. The urban population became imbalanced. With the absence of the professional class, the dope man and the “gangsta” became the norm, as did out and out violence on any male who was “sissy” or other.
Really I think it was my anger that first got me motivated. By anger, I am referring to dissatisfaction with representation. Shifting between being an insider and outsider, I could not help but observe our romantic relationship to the all-black city that was dependent upon a blanket of silence. Most of our critiques are geared toward white America—meanwhile, nobody wants to talk about the shit in our house, and this silence is really a co-conspirator in a lot of this bullshit we’ve got going. I have repeatedly said that I am concerned with a black-on-black dialogue—an in-house critique. Before we can blow up the “white” house we’ve got to put a few sticks of dynamite under the “black” house. See, there I go again with the revolution!
What I find interesting is the shift in the aesthetic model. I believe that the departure of the middle class holds a lot of historical importance because they became entrenched in a new integrated model that was more palatable to the mainstream white society, and inner-city style went virtually unnoticed until the entertainment industry tapped the commercial potential of “gansta rap.” Throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the integrated style got attention and developed as a new official form of blackness. Other important sites were developing concurrently, but they just were not as interesting to the majority of black or white folks. Baby, gangsta rap made everybody pay attention to inner-city style, if only as a new site for colonization. But inner-city style has always been here, the skeleton in the closet now worth some money, but still hardly official or respected. I use the aesthetic of southeast Los Angeles to highlight that region and all it carries, not in a romantic sense but to explicate its tenacity and complexity. A hybridity from within a kind of boundedness.
EJ: Discussions of your work have often situated it in the abstract tradition of Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, or Brice Marden. Somehow these comparisons seem flawed. Franklin Sirmans has compared you to Felix Gonzales-Torres and Janine Antoni for “extending the discourse of minimalism by injecting it with content.” I wonder whom you would identify as your predecessors and influences. In what “tradition?”
MB: I too am curious as to why the association with all of these abstract painters. For me, there is an abstraction that happens in the city that interests me; a dislocation of reality when you have the Mexican taqueria next to the black wig shop across the street from the Korean nail shop. I translate this suspension and interruption into my own palette. There’s an ongoing erasure and rewriting of ownership that flows in the “hood.” A constant collision of signs. I get a lot of my inspiration/information from the “supposedly” mad bitches—black feminist writers. I just finished the history of abstract painting by Francis Colpitt, and I do greatly appreciate the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Glenn Ligon and the concepts behind Arte Povera are cool.
EJ: Your references to hair products and design have been discussed as corporeal, stand-ins for skin and the body in a very visceral and literal sense. Do you agree? For me, the burnt end papers and gel-like colors are melancholic, but perhaps more ambiguous. They connote a kind of endless desire and futility, but their translucency offers a transcendence of the surface, conveying hope, peace. Tell me about how your work relates to minimalism.
MB: I look at my work as a collection of tensions/interruptions and renegotiated lines and color fields. The color choices I use are limited to what is available at Office Depot in the color copier. I then choose an art color that will mimic the colored paper and paint the surface of the canvas first with that paint. The first relationship to the surface is with paint, in the traditional sense. As I begin the process of repetition and layering, the colored paper becomes the stand in for the “real” color and what is left is the memory of the real color, but articulated through the colored copy paper. And the burnt edges of the permanent wave papers become line.
Limitation, structures such as gender roles, culture, and stereotypes present a set of immovable historical symbols. Having to negotiate being black and 6’8”—I was born into some specific stereotypes, and I worked it! Still do, so the strategies for individuality that I have adopted acknowledge the rules. Hence the use of a limited palette in my choice of materials. I work within a series of rules that put a pressure on my psyche to find ways around the model and engage my desire. When I am speaking of minimalism, I am speaking about a series of limitations and restrictions that I impose to create a certain artistic tension much like the tension I feel going into my own opening and the receptionist or someone in the elevator asks whether I am either there to set the catering or if I play basketball. Damn! Minimalism in the traditional sense is about the absence of something, a stripping away to the essence. I see a minimal palette as a preexisting palette “to inject with content.”
EJ: Your approach to content reminds me of bell hooks’ astute discussion of white male supremacist culture in Black Looks: Race and Representation. hooks writes “Racial integration has had a profound impact on black gender roles. It has helped promote a climate wherein most black women and men accept sexist notions of gender roles.” She interrogates the integrationist goals of the Civil Rights Movement as promoting a doctrine of black imitation of white values. She continues, “In every black community in the United States there are adult black men married, unmarried, gay, straight, who do not assert patriarchal domination and yet live fulfilled lives, where they are not sitting around worried about castration.” Again, I come back to the concept of tradition. If we accept that the notion of a universal black tradition (one that ignores class, ethnicity, region) is flawed, there is room to consider your work as both a challenge to and operating within “tradition.”
MB: Many of the codes that I remix have a lot of historical authority, where “keep it real” sounds like a threat. A policing from within the community that suppresses those urges to critically address codes of male normativity. It is dangerous to fuck with the brothers. Look to any rap video or gangsta narrative movie, and the ways in which it prescribes black male ritual—all that thuggin’ across the screen.
The titles I use are usually aggressive or at least point to a particular “hard” vernacular. “Dreadlock can’t tell me shit,” is one particular example that comes to mind. I hear a lot about being hard, so I operate within that paradigm of “hard” but inject it with a counter position. I use the model to critique a narrative that normalizes and anticipates an attitude, behavior, and fate for the urban male. I am other; I am street; I am a baller—get used to it! In moments of crisis something can happen. But you have to first throw a few stones.
Eungie Joo is a curator and writer based in New York. She has contributed to exhibition catalogues on Margaret Kilgallen, Lorna Simpson, and Kara Walker, as well as various publications including Wolgan Misool, Flash Art, and FYI (NYFA). She is co-curator with Doryun Chong and René de Guzman of Time After Time: Asia and Our Moment at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco.