Fly in the Buttermilk is a monumental work of collaged found paper, "materials with a built-in history," in the words of the artist, aggregated and distressed to form the agitated and tactile surfaces that have become Mark Bradford's unique artistic signature. Both of and about Bradford's world, this large-scale painting captures the warm, glowing tones of Southern California light veiled by the urban decay that defined the Los Angeles urban sprawl of Bradford's surroundings. Created during the years of the artist's initial rise to fame in the early 2000s, the present work is an exceptional example of Bradford's innovative process, which results in textured abstractions in which a gritty worldliness inheres.
Fly in the Buttermilk is elementally abstract, a formal strategy Bradford shares with Newman, Pollock, and Rothko. Yet while earlier generations of artists attempted to capture the metaphysical sublime in their work, Bradford bases his work in grounded, socially conscious ideas, insisting that "abstract is what it means to be human... The history of abstract painting and the history of social space; I'm always talking about two conditions going on at the same time" (M. Bradford, Method Man, 2004, Video Interview for the Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, http://www.pinocchioisonfire.org/#/gallery/method_man). Bradford's subjects range from racial stereotyping to issues of self-identity within the social networks that constitute his surroundings. His masterful canvases insist on their worldliness, doing so through their construction, their materials, and their titles. Aware that his works stand alone in their style of constitutive abstraction, Bradford has said "the conventional Euro-American narrative of abstraction's not my struggle" (M. Bradford, quoted in C. Bedford, Mark Bradford, Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, 2010, p. 14). Instead, Bradford's intensely physical processes of abusing his materials through tearing and layering parallel the racial and class prejudices that divide his city's communities from one another. Fly in the Buttermilk's title embodies this notion of separation with its evocation of the slang phrase sometimes used to describe the one black person in an all-white crowd.
Bradford is a profoundly contemporary painter. He rejects the normative tenets of his practice by eschewing the brush for built-up layers of billboard paper, twine, and the detritus of the neighborhood surrounding his Los Angeles studio. A self-proclaimed "paper chaser" (Ibid., p. 11), Bradford excavates his community for descriptive, discarded materials that to him express the very nature of life in Los Angeles. For Bradford, repurposing is not just a material process but also a philosophy of art making that cuts through his oeuvre, defining his identity as both an artist and as an analyst of his urban environment. Despite his innovative, imaginative techniques, Bradford has always conceived of his work as easel painting: their large scale, play between flatness and depth, and complex color arrangements are perceived by the artist as their defining painterly characteristics.
Yet, Bradford uses no preparatory drawings and no easel in his process of art making. Rather, directed only by his artistic instinct, he lays out a series of interlocking lines with gauge twine and then covers his untreated canvases with black carbon paper that he subsequently roughs up, "tears away and sands down [creating] new surfaces, adding and subtracting in quick bursts, making decisions and reversing them in a matter of seconds." Throughout this proccess Bradford "just keeps moving" (M. Bradford, ibid., p. 19 and "Process & Materials," Wexner Center for the Arts, op. cit., http://www.pinocchioisonfire.org/#/about/technique).
This method of sporadic, unplanned application leads to tactile textures, spontaneous patterning, and intriguing overlaps, the strips of repurposed papers coming forward off their backing, lively, and kinetic in their reverberations. Bradford's work is very much tied to the unique urbanity and sensory experiences of Los Angeles. The colors and materials of Fly in the Buttermilk are direct reflections of Bradford's life in his Southern California studio. Within its vibrations, textures, and palpable depth we find Bradford's layered interpretations of the race relations and societal dialogue that shape and define his city.