Mark Bradford’s triumphant Boreas is a monumental example of the California artist’s layered brand of socially conscious abstraction. Applying discarded paper remnants salvaged from his native Los Angeles, Bradford adds and subtracts material to arrive at paintings that resemble an eroded canyon or the map of an extraterrestrial surface. In Boreas, Bradford offers a tangled web of hypertrophic lacerations, some framing panes of varied color, some framing black and some serving only to disrupt the flatness of the silver expanse dominating the picture’s edges. Evocative of a tangle of vines or a network of capillaries, the system of raised marks appears to radiate out from the canvas’s center, dissipating in frequency as it snakes outward. A highly complex and powerfully worked painting, Boreas captures one of the 21st century’s leading painters at his best, melding rigorous technique, a strong but un-romanticized affinity for New York School painting and social concerns into a masterfully painted tapestry.
Like many of Bradford’s best paintings, Boreas’s action is largely concentrated in the canvas’s center. An explosive latticework of raised marks overlays a fast-moving wash of colors—sometimes punctuated by sharp passages of flat black. Like small portals, the underlying colors are tantalizing windows into an unseen underpainting, giving Boreas’s silver expanse an armor-like quality. As if shielding the color underneath, the silver provides only amended access to what lies beneath, leaving the viewer to question what that might be. And the viewer would be right to be curious. Bradford, discussing the layering of his paintings, explained, “Sometimes you can’t put stuff on the top; you have to retrieve something that’s on the bottom” (M. Bradford, quoted in Upcoming, Aspen Art Museum. Jan. 1st, 2013). For Bradford, both visual content and meaning are often layered beneath the visible surface.
The colorful areas of the painting, obscured partially by the tendril-like marks, prove to be full of classic Bradford material: newspapers, magazines, posters, photographs and a whole host of other unknown visual scraps. Like a stream of consciousness, Bradford’s imagery blends together, appearing in flashes of clarity in an otherwise conglomerated field. The once highly specific visual ephemera become one in Boreas, transformed by Bradford’s skilful hand into a pan-cultural, multicolored tapestry of unknown origin. This material transformation is central to Bradford’s work: using remarkably simple means, he is able to create surfaces that glow, shimmer, and resonate. This colored expanse underneath the painting’s upper crust serves as a sort of engine, driving the action around it and compelling the painting’s searching roots to form themselves around the images. Nevertheless, they are mostly obscured, blurred, torn or otherwise illegible in their original context, a fact Bradford exploits to great effect. He strips these items of their specific meaning, turning them into simple colorful forms without higher associations, giving them a new, wholly composite meaning unique to Boreas. Indeed, form and meaning are often intimately linked in Bradford’s practice. Calling his mode of painting social abstraction, Bradford seeks to move beyond earlier notions of abstract paintings wherein the subject is none other than the painter’s soul laid bare.
Explaining his cerebral departure from that painterly strategy, Bradford says, “…historically abstraction has always belonged to the canon. It’s still the biggest export this country has made: big white men of the 1950s; Jackson Pollock. Then the feminists unpacked it and put it away and said, ‘Bad.’ And that was it, but it’s still in the canon. I said, ‘Wait a minute, now. We didn’t even get a piece of that pie.’ But I didn’t want abstraction that was inward looking; I wanted abstraction that looked out at the social and political landscape” (M. Bradford, quoted in B. Jenkins and M. Bradford. “Mark Bradford.” Interview Magazine. June 13, 2017). For Bradford, the very act of his painting abstract pictures as an African American in 21st century America is a coup of sorts, subverting years of the dominant narrative of abstraction as the realm of the white male macho artist.
Taking cues from his native South Central Los Angeles, Bradford’s painting always bears a hint of autobiography. He arrived at his recognizable mature style by layering thin sheets of paper used in his mother’s hair salon, where he worked as a teenager, and coloring them with hair dye. Despite moving beyond this specific technique, Bradford’s work nevertheless retains unmistakable traces of the artist’s upbringing and his experiences as a struggling artist in the years before he achieved recognition. Sourcing all of his materials from big box home improvement stores, Bradford’s paintings speak both to his strong affinity for making and the physical act of creation as well as the headier arena of pure abstraction. “If Home Depot doesn’t have it, Mark Bradford doesn’t need it,” says the artist, emphasizing the unpretentiousness so central to his attitude about painting and object-making (M. Bradford, quoted in B. Jenkins and M. Bradford, “Mark Bradford.” Interview Magazine, June 13, 2017). Boreas is particularly material-forward, with silvered surface constituting a large and dominant part of the painting’s surface. Here, the effect assumes an almost regal status, resembling plate armor or the hull of a great ship.
In spite of its ubiquitous roster of materials, Boreas’s sophisticated composition and expertly wrought surface betray its creator’s well-documented skill not only at painting, but at picture-building more broadly. Frenetic or serenely still depending on the section, Boreas finds a balance between the two dominant polarities in Bradford’s practice: chaos and meditativeness. Despite his paintings’ often hectic surfaces, viewers are invariably treated to Bradford’s painstaking, monk-like working process, where each precisely thought-out gesture is heavily considered and laid down only in service of the larger composition. This process-driven method underscores the artist’s distance from previous generations of abstract artists, many of whom favored quick, flashy brushwork and edge-to-edge compositions. Explaining his process in cross-disciplinary terms, Bradford describes the dichotomies in his work: “It’s almost like a rhythm. I’m a builder and a demolisher. I put up so I can tear down. I’m a speculator and a developer. In archaeological terms, I excavate and I build at the same time” (M. Bradford, quoted in “Mark Bradford: Politics, Process and Postmodernism,” Art21, April 1, 2013). This defining and guiding statement is fully evident in Boreas, where painterly tension derives from the relationship between seen and unseen, and color and the lack thereof.
Belonging to a highly productive and seminal moment in Bradford’s career, Boreas is one of the earliest examples of the artist’s use of the reflective medium. Using it in a number of paintings from 2007 and beyond, the material lends Bradford’s typically impenetrable paintings an ethereal quality, as though they are solid and impossibly light simultaneously. Many of Boreas’s sister paintings are housed in major collections across the globe, such as the Museum of Modern Art (Giant, 2007) the Denver Art Museum (Mississippi Gottdam, 2007), and the Whitney Museum of American Art (Bread and Circuses, 2007). Bradford’s turn toward a more unrestricted aesthetic in which a broad variety of marks and materials took the place of more uniform approach to layering, and marked a major turning point in Bradford’s remarkable career. Since Boreas, Bradford’s practice has followed its lead; his work today is lyrical, materially varied and compositionally measured.
Bradford, who represented the United States at the 2017 Venice Biennale, has emerged as one of America’s most important artists, turning a critical eye on the social inequalities plaguing the country, all while working within one of its proudest traditions: abstract painting. Bradford’s practice, based in the channeling of social issues into abstract pictures, has resonated around the globe, resulting in recognition outside the United States and inclusion in many internationally renowned collections. Still, his work remains firmly American in its conception and execution, and especially its use of vernacular materials and unpretentious approach to one of painting’s loftiest genres. In adapting literal trash—throw-away relics of American society—for use in a painting is, in itself, a grand gesture. Bradford’s core assertion is that all visual material is equal and useful in its own way. By staking this position, Bradford makes a subtle but powerful statement on societal lines and social inequality.
A dramatic and pivotal painting, Boreas is among several of Bradford’s works from the first decade of the 21st century to truly define that moment in the artist’s working life. Capturing a paradigm shift in his practice, Boreas’s striking marks, thoughtful composition and stunning physicality distinguish it as among the best of his impressive 2000s output. An important addition to the conversation of 21st century art, especially as it intersects with race and class, Boreas expands its range beyond painting, becoming a document of a changing nation and the visual culture it produces. Finding formal clues and visual inspiration in his investigations of big-picture social dilemmas, Mark Bradford deftly channels his energies and frustrations onto a monumental masterpiece of contemporary abstraction. Boreas finds the perfect synthesis of Bradford’s social practice and his impressive technical approach, resulting in a painting that is both physically moving and conceptually loaded.