Textural and textual, Mark Bradford’s Ghost Money is a stratified map of contemporary experience, a penetrating excavation into the gritty economic and cultural landscape of the artist’s native Los Angeles. The MacArthur Award-winning artist, who famously worked as a hair stylist in his mother’s L.A. salon prior to his meteoric rise to art world stardom, combines a muscular, gestural style reminiscent of Abstract Expressionism with quotidian “real-world” raw material. Peeling billboard papers or merchant posters, photomechanical reproductions, hairdressing endpapers, newsprint clips, polyester cord: these are Bradford’s scavenged ephemera, considered in their regular context to be visual pollution yet decontextualized and altered into art. The raw materials which constitute Bradford’s signature colossal collages are tied to specific social functions in their urban environment, inextricably linked to preexisting meaning. At the same time, the artist interacts with the materials gesturally in his hallmark intuitive process of gouging, tearing, and cutting, bleach-soaking, singeing, caulking, and finishing pieces with an electric sander. The resultant fusion of abstract painting and social awareness, termed “social abstraction” by the artist, has forged a fresh, invigorated space for an updated Abstract Expressionism. Ghost Money, a celebrated example of Bradford’s characteristic map-like mixed media collage, alludes to both the modernist grid and the urban grid, to the networks of local economies and to networks of public space. In its lacerated, layered, sprawl, Ghost Money vibrantly embodies the conceptual complexity, visual rigor, and unique beauty of Bradford’s remarkable oeuvre.
Ghost Money, in a similar vein to the artist’s 2015 public mural Sexy Cash in La Jolla, references the empty promises of seedy local marketing materials, which are tactically positioned on telephone phones and fences near buses to target people of lower economic strata. Inhabiting the work literally and conceptually, these flyers and posters profess to provide struggling working-class residents with cash for houses or cars; like a ghost, the money haunts but never materializes. As Michael Wilson perspicaciously noted in an Artforum review of Mark Bradford’s 2008 gallery solo show Nobody Jones: “Featured works such as the collage painting Ghost Money...hint that the show’s abstraction of urban topography might find an echo in the notion of hauntology” (M. Wilson, “Mark Bradford,” Artforum, April 2008, n.p.). Incorporating modified detritus—billboard paper, photomechanical reproductions, wrapping and carbon paper—in its densely accreted, silver-gray surfaces, Ghost Money is a rich representation of urban life that pays particular attention to the “underbelly” economies that are interlaced with social injustices. In a nod to the density of the urban advertisements that perpetuate these economic schemes, the piece has a fragmented visual density. Formally, the layered abstracted satellite map “reanimates the ripped-and-torn décollage methodology trademarked by Jacques Villeglé and Raymond Hains in the 1950s” (ibid., n.p.). Of his process, Mark Bradford has noted that he employs décollage and collage in equal measure, rhythmically removing layers and building them back up in order to “excavate and...build at the same time” (M. Bradford, quoted in “Mark Bradford: Politics, Process, and Postmodernism,” Art21, April 1, 2013, n.p.)
Bradford’s atypical biography has been a source of inspiration and fascination in the art world. The artist famously apprenticed in his mother’s beauty shop where, in addition to styling hair, he also painted the salon signage (PRESS AND CURL $25; JHERI CURL $45). The relics of that time live on in his work, which often features the end papers used for perms as well as “painterly variants on weaving, beading, and tinting” (M. Wilson, “Mark Bradford,” Artforum, April 2008, n.p.). To Bradford, the salon signifies his multigenerational place in Los Angeles’ merchant culture, a heritage that complicates his relationship with the mid-century, New York-based Abstract Expressionism to which his work is aesthetically linked. Bradford broke onto the artistic stage with his inclusion in the historic 2001 group show Freestyle at the Studio Museum in Harlem, which introduced the controversial term “post-black.” He went on to enjoy solo shows at the likes of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Boston, and SFMOMA, and was awarded with a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, a US State Department Medal of Arts, and the prestigious Bucksbaum Award, among others. Bradford’s personal vision of his Los Angeles community exists within and beyond the canvas: the artist cofounded Art + Practice, a local organization that works with teens and young adults in foster care to stress the cultural importance of art in social context. The commendable program, like the artist’s penetrating collages, makes visible Bradford’s distinctly compelling aesthetic and social approach to his surroundings.