'Maps to me are such fragile systems, because at the moment of a war, at the moment of gentrification, they change. So they're the most inflexible, flexible thing I can think of. They imbue you with this security, and at the same time they're deeply, deeply flawed. They document the history of power; they document the history of wars. Maps document lots of lies... Maps to me are tricky and insidious, and theyve always fascinated me' (M. Bradford, quoted in T. Golden, 'Mark Bradford: The Other Side of Perfect', October 2006, reproduced at www.worldclassboxing.org).
Mark Bradfords Kryptonite is an immense collage made up of an intricate accumulation of pieces of coloured and printed paper. This largely intuitive arrangement of forms has resulted in a kaleidoscopic, dynamic abstract accretion of squares and striations that towers above the viewer. Bradford, an African-American artist born in 1961 and therefore more of the generation of Jean-Michel Basquiat and even David Hammons, has created a map-like gridwork of paper which has been affixed to the surface and, in some places, removed. Bradford uses an incredible range of gestures as an alternative to painting, gouging, tearing, cutting, pulling and even sanding the surface, resulting in its incredibly textured appearance. At the same time, this distressed appearance heightens the extent to which Kryptonite appears rooted in the urban landscape of his native Los Angeles. Bradfords works are at once of the moment and timeless, taking the flotsam and jetsam of life in the city and arranging them to create abstract pictures that serve as fictitious maps charting contemporary experience. Their visual and conceptual power has gained increasing recognition during the past decade, culminating in the large retrospective dedicated to his work, which is currently travelling from the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, where it ran until mid-August, to the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston, before being shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, the Dallas Museum of Art and finally, from February 2012, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Racial integration remains a very real topic in the USA and in Los Angeles in particular, with the faultlines being exposed again and again, be it in the 1992 civil unrest that followed the acquittal of the police officers filmed beating Rodney King or, the year before Kryptonite was created, when an officer fatally and repeatedly shot 13 year-old Devin Brown. The implied idealism of town planning, the hope of creating an urban utopia, an ordered and structured society, is punctured in Kryptonite by the chaotic overlay of grid upon grid and the tattered detritus that often makes up the picture surface, which hint at a sense of aftermath, perhaps recalling the collapse of social order during the 1992 riots. Maps are essentially fictitious visualisations of our environments, their arbitrary appearance explored in Jasper Johns' celebrated series, but in a place like LA, that arbitrariness can have serious human consequences. Indeed, in Kryptonite, the composition recalls an incident map, perhaps documenting flashpoints or hotspots of some sort. Certainly issues of racial disharmony preoccupied Bradford during the year that he created Kryptonite, as it was during 2006 that he also made Black Wall Street and Scorched Earth, both of which were reactions to the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, which left dozens dead, hundreds wounded, ten thousand homeless and a prosperous African-American community completely shattered.
In Kryptonite, there are small clues to the urban origin of Bradford's found materials within the largely abstract swirl that dominates the surface, for instance in the fragments of movie posters, the hints of letters and the ads for a 'Bait Shop'. Bradford, a self-confessed 'paper chaser', scours the districts near his studio in Leimert Park - a centre for the African-American arts scene which Tony Singleton, the writer and director of the acclaimed 1991 movie Boyz n the Hood, described as 'black Greenwich Village' - for his raw materials, favouring what he terms merchant posters', the fliers and ads that cover so many of the surfaces in the area (T. Singleton, quoted in A. Schulte-Peevers, A.C. Balfour & A. Bender, Lonely Planet: Los Angeles & Southern California, Melbourne 2008, p. 142). These all have 'built-in history', and Bradford makes full use of this, taking these tell-tale traces of urban poverty and enshrining them within his own personalised map (M. Bradford, quoted in Bedford, op. cit., 2010, p. 11). The paper he uses is a direct product of the areas themselves, of the social and economic conditions there, and as such serve both as links to the life of the city and as barometers revealing the state of things.
The materials Bradford uses are often sourced from South Central LA - which, proving the point regarding the fallibility and political dimension of maps that Bradford has enshrined in Kryptonite, was renamed South LA in an attempt to remove some of the stigma that the area had historically accumulated. Bradford captures the sense of flux and change that is associated with the area and concentrates it within his map-like collage through a variety of techniques. He will often pick out the letters on posters in twine, flatten the sheet from behind and then sand it so that the paper is distressed and the raised areas come through; this is a technique that also helps him to create striations within his compositions, allowing the lower layers to reveal themselves, glimpses of colour bleeding through, creating a rich and complex palimpsest that reflects the intricacies of contemporary life. His collages present the viewer with an accumulation of additions and removals, the artist moving, in part guided by intuition and in part aided by various visual memories, creating an abstract maelstrom of colour that echoes the appearance of a planning blueprint. While the appearance from a distance resembles abstract paintings, the composition is largely comprised of pieces of paper of various sizes, cut and torn and affixed to the surface or exposed through the deliberate erosion of another surface. Bradford has developed his own means and methodology, detached from much of the theory of the art world, through which he explores the extent to which we define and are defined by concepts of place, by our environment. The rich arsenal of gestures that he uses to create works such as Kryptonite is a far cry from those of the Action Painters of former decades, showing to what extent, 'the conventional Euro-American narrative of abstractions not my struggle' (M. Bradford, quoted in C. Bedford, 'Against Abstraction', pp. 7-29, Bedford (ed.), Mark Bradford, exh. cat., Columbus, 2010, p. 14).
These gestures are rendered all the more impressive by the sheer scale of Kryptonite. At over eight feet tall, Kryptonite is large enough to dwarf even the artist himself, regardless of his own impressive height - he is 6'8" tall. Indeed, Bradford himself has explained that he wants his artworks to be large enough to engulf him. As viewers, we too are expected both to lose ourselves and to attempt to locate ourselves within the map. After all, that is how maps function. This sense of absorption within the surface of Kryptonite is vital to the idea of place that Bradford explores in Kryptonite, both through its map-like appearance and the materials sourced from the landscape of LA that he has used in its creation. This is a map of the street, from the street. Bradford presents his map-like abstractions, which he refers to as paintings' regardless of their being collages, in order to express the collage-like way of life of Los Angeles itself. He has referred to his childhood growing up as an African- American in LA as being part of an integrated community, and it is the faded spectre of that too-often precarious integration that is captured in the deliberately worn and torn surface of Kryptonite, and perhaps even in the implied mortality and vulnerability of the title, which refers to the one element that can take away Superman's powers.
The visible traces of the failure of that elusive integration, of the tragic collapse of a collage-like society, are visible in the South LA landscape still bearing the scars left by the 1992 civil unrest; the burnt-out and abandoned buildings and empty plots that punctuated the area resulted in acres of barriers, plywood boarding and fences that served as the perfect space for these merchant posters, providing Bradford with plentiful material. Paternity tests, quick loans, speedy immigration papers, gun shows... All these and more were advertised in lurid posters designed to catch the eye of passing drivers. After all, unlike the Paris of the déchiristes of the post-war period such as Jacques Villeglé or Raymond Hains or the Rome of Mimmo Rotella, LA is not a pedestrian city: the posters needed to grab the attention of drivers hurtling through. They needed to be bold, direct and succinct. And this makes them perfect for Bradford: the curator Robert Storr described riding shotgun with Bradford in an essay for the current retrospective catalogue, explaining how the artist roams through the cityscape in his SUV often ripping the posters from the walls, haggling or trespassing as the situation demands, gradually accumulating the transient ephemera of urban life in South Los Angeles and reconfiguring it to create something that is at once timeless and aesthetic and, in its tattered idealism, highly engaged, an eloquent and elegant lament.