Mark Bradford- Very Powerful Lords (2003). Mixed media installation.
The Whitney Museum of American Art at Altria, New York. Courtesy
of Lombard-Fried Fine Arts, New York.
Mark Bradford, The Devil is beating his wife, 2003, The Whitney
Museum of American Art at Altria, NY. Courtesy Lombard Freid fine
from Art AsiaPacific Magazine, Spring 2004 #40
By Carolee Thea
The Los Angeles artist, Mark Bradford disturbs the
barriers between art, politics, his inner life and social concerns.
Functioning as both artist and cultural historian, he addresses his
external environment as an articulation of the aspects of a city’s
migrating-merging identities. Not the first artist to deal with issues
of identity, he also reveals a segment of contemporary black culture
in which the viewer is reminded that their views emanate from perspectives
grounded in myth, bias and identity construction.
Armed with a BFA, MA and a beauty operator’s license, the artist
negotiates a space between high and low art. His signature paintings
evoke the formal aspects of modernist art history sharing the concerns
of artists like Agnes Martin and Ellen Gallagher, but are firmly
rooted in the grid-based circuits of modern metropolis and the urban
materials of his Los Angeles community. These works incorporate layers
of signed permanent press end papers with synthetic hair dyes, polymer
or cellophane, to create translucent and luminous washes of color.
The final grid paintings are manifestations of these “hybridites” but
with the pentimenti of signage and posters on city walls, of print
media and magazines.
By employing a 20th century formal aesthetic, Bradford attempts to
encroach on its sanctity. As all of his works evolve from urban interactions,
racial barriers, the polemics of black culture and the invasion of
the newer ethnic merchants, the idea of encroachment as a social
transitive, replicates the transpositioning of ethnicities in his
As beauty operator, Bradford is involved with ethnicity, beauty,
artifice, ritual and process. And although awkward compared to his
paintings, his sculptures and mixed media installations further involve
the viewer in a giddy dissection of metaphoric social references.
At the Miami-Based Art fair 2002 Bradford, joined by his hairdresser
mother and his aunt, turned the gallery’s exhibition space
(a container on the beach) into a replica of a hair salon. Privileging
us with a look into this segment of contemporary black culture, adventuring,
(mostly white) art goers signed up for hairstyles and accompanying
conversation. The audience participation enlivened the work/event,
categorizing it as an example of “relational aesthetics.”
In the fall of 2003, at the Whitney Museum’s satellite gallery,
Altria, Bradford’s installation, Very Powerful Lords, made
up a number of sculptures was dominated by one huge painting entitled,
The Devil Beating His Wife. Comprised of overlapping commercial signage,
the final layer of translucent blacks and yellows, was drawn from
the materials of police barriers or construction sites. For Bradford,
rewriting - reenacted in the peeling and scraped signage- is an expression
of the increasing hybrid manifestations of his community.
Among the mixed media works as, Water lilies, was made up of a wall
of shelves displaying water bottles adorned with silver champagne
tags. The work’s repetitive aspect is not dissimilar to the
strategy used by Andreas Gursky, Sven Pahlson and others, who often
portray stock shelving in aisles of commodities and icons in dizzying
array of consumer culture.
2 faced, likewise raises questions of class and aesthetics the manifestation
of nature and culture, reality and artifice. Six identically mirrored
light boxes depicted an idealized artificial landscape center on
a waterfall. Backlit, mirrored and motorized, they suggest the endless
cascades of a fountain of youth and beauty (a cultural construction).
The reflective surfaces of the boxes reference Narcissus and the
Lacanian mirror stage, to provide an external image that gives rise
to a mental representation dependent on recognition. The original
light box was one that Bradford found in a restaurant, but it had
been replaced by a newer owner. Undaunted, he located others in a
storage facility. The work then became a simulacrum for a castoff
society, as well as one of social displacement within a multicultural
Bradford’s investigation expanded beyond a racially specific
opposition, addressing the hybrid cultural and economic exchange
of Asian and Latino communities in Los Angeles. In China Silk, woven
Chinese hair (the predominant source of hair extensions), which is
generally imported and sold by Korean immigrant merchants to Black
and Korean American women, evokes the cultural and economic exchange
of Asian, Black and Latino communities in L.A. Another work, Hooked
Up, consists of three read-made plaster sculptures of identical hands
clasped in prayer. Adorned with artificial nail tips, each hand is
painted to depict different ethnic groups, while appropriating a
form of black embellishment; one all white, another with a dominant
red African design and another in yellow.
In the diptych, Asian Man and Crow, Bradford employs a statue he
found in the stalls of a Korean merchant. Smaller than life sized,
the Asian man is dressed in white (martial-arts cum Buddhist priest)
with his hands in a welcoming posture. The Asian gesture is, ironically,
a reversal of the subservient posture of the black lawn jockey. A
taxidermied black crow high up on the wall refers to Jim Crow- a
minstrel show character as well as the Jim Crow laws.
With Very Powerful Lords, Bradford creates a total environment for
the viewer to enter and to move through fluidly between inside and
outside, reality, artifice and local materiality in order to express
the trade structures of contemporary LA. The ethnic flow characterizes
the intermixing of economies among different communities in relationship
to larger trade models of a capitalist system. His work, also grounded
in an empathetic relationship with the notion of beauty and power
that governs all of our lives, encourages us to reflect on our own
personal engagement with those Powerful Lords and the world that
has defined history.