Mark Bradford: Through Darkest America by Truck and Tank
9 x 9 x 9 and South Galleries, White Cube Bermondsey
16 October 2013 - 12 January 2014
Review by Rachel Maggart
‘Through Darkest America by Truck and Tank’ is an exhibition of new work by Mark Bradford and his second with the gallery. Using materials such as billboard sheets, recycled posters and news print, Bradford incorporates aspects of the urban environment into large-scale, mixed media works.
The title of the exhibition is drawn from a chapter in the memoir of Dwight D. Eisenhower, in which the former American President references his experience as a member of the Transcontinental Motor Convoy of 1919. Apparently this encounter, ‘coupled with his observations in Germany during the Second World War’, led to the adoption of a nationwide highway system in the USA in the 1950s.
This adds another dimension to Bradford’s grid structure, underlying subterfuges of paper and found materials, hard edges and synthetic abstraction. Not only is there a sinister element of manmade progress - an interstate highway disrupting delicate ecosystems (representations of which swell and surge in their own undulating patterns) - but one might also detect undertones of war.
Mark Bradford is a modern trash collector, accumulating bits of cultural shrapnel refused by society on his canvases. Applying a democratic hand to industrial media - low-grade paper, foil, plywood, etc - he nonetheless demonstrates a reverence for tactility and versatility. Arranging, layering, sanding and bleaching, Bradford achieves a range of effects - viscous, dry, smooth, eviscerated (notice the scabby ‘Constitution I’, which appears to have been charred by a smouldering cigarette, or the acidic ‘Constitution IV’, which looks as if it has been treated with chemicals). Repurposed signage is obscured and stencilled over so it evokes vandalised surfaces.
Bradford’s works are non-figurative but autobiographical in ways. Underground economies, migrant communities and abandoned public spaces factor strongly in his work as ties to his South Central LA neighbourhood, as do maps and systems of signs (take ‘The Last Telegraph’, a symbol of communication gone off the grid).
Perhaps what is most interesting is Bradford’s use of palimpsest, which speaks tangibly to the ruptures and confusion of urban development. His paintings can be seen as fingerprints of the slashed cultural landscape of California. In ‘Shoot the Coin’, for example, excerpts of text become buried as one moves away from the surface of the composition. Then the paintings’ encrypted character becomes more apparent as one hones in on the picture plane. This partly obscured iconography creates its own disequilibrium, as alternating fragments of textual references frustrate any attempt at meaning.
In 9 x 9 x 9, the site-specific ‘Receive Calls On Your Cellphone From Jail’ towers above and surrounds the viewer. The clear-cut sales pitch from a promotional flyer Bradford found in South Central LA has connotations of socioeconomic exploitation, which he cites and replicates 150-fold. Taking the phrase and turning it over and over (perhaps analysing it to shreds), before wallpapering it out again in vertical and horizontal columns, Bradford seems to ask: Does it make more or less sense now’ and 9 x 9 x 9 become the dimensions of that constrained jail cell, where neither calls nor advertisements penetrate. Herein lies the magic of Bradford’s work: the skilled re-appropriation of the misused, mishandled, discarded message. In ‘Receive Calls On Your Cellphone From Jail’, he effectively exploits exploitation, obliterating any intended messaging and instead creating interference.