Mark Bradford is known for his monumental canvases that pull their inspiration from the city street and the history of art in equal measure. Promise Land, finished the same year that a major traveling retrospective of the artist’s work ended, is a fiery example of Bradford’s meticulous techniques and eye for composition. Sourcing phrases and materials from signs, billboards, and the floors of beauty salons, Bradford instills each work with the history and memory of a place. “I want my materials to actually have the memories—the cultural, personal memories that are lodged in the object. You can’t erase history, no matter what you do. It bleeds through” (M. Bradford, quoted in Mark Bradford: Merchant Posters, exh. cat., Aspen Art Museum, Aspen, 2010, p. 10). Relying on found objects and a deep connection to the areas in which he works, Bradford is able to go beyond materiality in order to think critically about specific social issues. Though not all of the artist’s works contain text, pieces like Promise Land offer an immediate connection to the viewer as they search between the layers of paint and paper to find meaning in the words.
Massive in scale, Promise Land stretches twelve feet across and is a riotous collage of text, paint, and torn paper. Red, white, and black words in various stages of legibility ricochet across the surface. The phrase “SOBER LIVING” is used repeatedly, a term the artist pulled from a local billboard in his neighborhood. Bradford notes: “[T]hese signs are very clearly speaking to the needs of the people in the community who are passing them by every day. It’s not like popular culture, where it’s all globalized. This is very localized. And what’s fascinating about it is that it changes so rapidly, like Transitional Housing, Sober Living, Cash for Your Homes. That’s something that’s come about in the last year. Now, in two or three years in the community, there are going to be other needs and other parasitic systems that are going to come and take advantage of them. It’s in a constant state of crisis here, a constant state of fluidity” (M. Bradford, cited in E. Hardy, “Border Crossings,” in op. cit., p. 9). By seizing these subjects and immortalizing them in his paintings, Bradford is able to both catalogue and problematize what the signs stand for and mean. In Promise Land, each word fights toward the front as it is simultaneously overrun by lines and strokes of pale yellow, blinding white, deep red, and bubblegum pink. The swirls of color lash jaggedly across the canvas with a nod to earlier Abstract Expressionists, but the text itself holds its own against these outbursts and forms an uneasy truce with their wilder brushwork. Though the result exhibits a frantic energy that pulses with action, Bradford’s works require a deeper investigation. Perusing the many layers of material that make up his multifaceted surfaces, the viewer can accompany the artist on an archaeological dig through the ephemeral detritus of society.
Born in Los Angeles, Bradford would often help at his mother’s beauty salon. After high school, he began to work full time as a hairdresser until he enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts. There he received a BFA in 1995 and an MFA in 1997. Bradford’s formative years in the beauty parlor factored heavily into his early work as he was inspired by the small pieces of paper and other cast off bits he would find there and start to collage. He sees his work as having a very specific conversation about growing up in South Los Angeles and the culture and people there. Bradford noted, “I may pull the raw material from a very specific place, culturally from a particular place, but then I abstract it. I’m only really interested in abstraction; but social abstraction, not just the 1950s abstraction. The painting practice will always be a painting practice but we’re living in a post-studio world, and this has to do with the relationship with things that are going on outside” (M. Bradford, in conversation with S. May, in Through Darkest America by Truck and Tank, exh. cat., London, White Cube, 2013-14, p. 83). Rather than focusing just on abstraction itself, Bradford creates dialogues about social constructs through his collage work.
To Bradford, works like Promise Land are about making connections. By creating a visual bridge between conceptual art practice and the everyday world of billboards, advertisements, and street signage, he maps influence and overlap between the two. Some of his works seem more methodical, more topographical, while paintings like Promise Land have more in common visually with historical abstract painters. However, Bradford is quick to note that his methods are not in line with his more formalist predecessors. Instead, they are an attempt to pay homage to and investigate the social processes that result in peeling paper and fractured slogans in specific neighborhoods. “I do not like conversations about Winsor & Newton and surface and transparency and luminosity and glazing”, Bradford has mentioned. “No. I’m like: go find it. It has to exist somewhere out there; go find it. What painters fetishize—surface and translucence—I learned all about that through architecture and the sides of buildings. I understand transparency because of the erosion of paper” (M. Bradford, quoted in C. S. Eliel, “Dynamisms and Quiet Whispers: Conversations with Mark Bradford”, Mark Bradford, exh. cat. Wexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, Ohio, 2010, p. 63). This erosion is a signifier for the passage of time within a particular place. By capturing it and exploring its visual possibilities, Bradford hopes to bring new relationships to light.
As Bradford builds up layer upon layer of text in pieces like Promise Land, one begins to make visual connections to the remnants of wheat-pasted signs on walls or the act of peering through a rip in a billboard to see the previous poster. The idea of the palimpsest is relevant here where one obfuscated text or work can be read through another. Not only are we reading Bradford’s phrases through each other and through his layers of painted lines, but the very society from which he sources his materials and subjects can be seen as well. Curator Thelma Golden, sensing the burgeoning potential in the painter’s works early on, included Bradford in the pivotal Freestyle exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2001. From there, the artist’s career expanded rapidly as he continued to reinterpret abstraction for a new generation. “As a twenty-first-century African American artist,” Bradford noted, “when I look back at Abstract Expressionism, I get the politics, I get the problems, I get the theories, I can read [Clyfford Still’s] manifestos, but I think there are other ways of looking through abstraction. To use the whole social fabric of our society as a point of departure for abstraction reanimates it, dusts it off. It becomes really interesting to me, and supercharged. I just find that chilling and amazing’ (M. Bradford, “Clyfford Still’s Paintings”, in The Artist Project: What Artists See When They Look at Art, New York, 2017, p. 46). By using socially-relevant subjects and focusing on issues outside of formal concerns, Bradford reinterprets and revitalizes the history of abstraction. Careful not to dismiss those who have come before, the artist builds upon historical works just as he aptly references the cultural castoffs in his compositions.