Mark Bardford, SFMoMA, review by Catherine Spencer
Mark Bradford excels at deploying adroit, highly expressive material and visual signifiers that mainline complex socio-cultural issues. Take the splay-feathered black crow suspended over the opening to his SFMoMA show, aimed slap-bang at the gallery wall, where its charcoal beak stages a pointed intersection with the blatantly white paint. As its title, Jim Crow (2003-9) makes unequivocal, the bird’s obstructed flight and the binary monotones it establishes embody the crude divisions of racism, specifically referencing their expression in the laws that segregated America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For those hoping Bradford’s crow is impaling itself, the tensely curled claws bespeak cruel life left in its legacy yet. Elsewhere, in Kobe I Got Your Back (2008), a basketball traced over with sinews of papier-mâché and painted black, becomes both a symbol for and a means of gently resisting stereotypes of black masculinity, particularly those generated through the commoditised image of the sports star (named here as Kobe Bryant of the LA Lakers), by allowing both for the possibility of failure and an acknowledgement of vulnerability shared.
Although Jim Crow and Kobe I Got Your Back might seem like anomalies within the context of Bradford’s wider oeuvre, which consists predominantly of abstracted collage-paintings, his work is united by a sustained interest in the way that materials become invested with, or embedded within, social meaning. The opening room at SFMoMA contains a series of works composed around the same component shape, repeated and layered: a creamy rectangle edged with a delicate brown areole, at times transparent, at others opaque. In pieces like Smokey (2003) the rectangles are arranged to form tracks of domino lines, white over black; in others, as in Enter and Exit the New Negro (2003), they have been tessellated to create a subtly shaded mesh. From afar, they evoke nets shimmering as if they are full of fish scales, sparking comparisons with Agnes Martin’s gridded canvases. Up close, the shape is reminiscent not just of fish scales but cells, suggesting the transcendentalist discovery of the world replicated in the membrane of a leaf or a drop of water. Created using singed permanent endpapers, Bradford pushes these comparisons using a form that speaks simultaneously to the specific place occupied by the beauty parlour within African-American communities. As he himself puts it: ‘I realised I had hit on a material that had a lot of possibilities. It dealt with minimalism and it was also of black culture. It could speak in two languages.’
Bradford’s works don’t just speak two languages: they speak them at the same time, with polyphonic interpretative effects. The endpapers exemplify this, interweaving as they do allusions to both the communal, expressive and empowering qualities of self-presentation, and the beauty industry’s remorseless manipulation of gendered and racialised constructs in order to sell products. The works which blossom over the walls of the ensuing rooms at SFMoMA take up and expand the lesson of the endpapers: Potable Water (2005) is composed from striated sections cut from the blue flags that mark the activities of water workers in US cities, together with sections of maps and dataflows. Potable Water demonstrates Bradford’s facility for employing abstracted forms to literalise concepts that are themselves essentially abstract - playing here for example on the nebulous grasp many urban citizens have on the network of underground plumbing and politics that governs their water supply, whether they take it for granted or are only too aware of its scarcity.
Many of Bradford’s works from the mid-2000s use the grid to shuffle between micro and macro, adopting aerial perspectives of the city street while suggesting the unruly networks of nerves and synapses that surge beneath each individual’s skin. In a series of large-scale paintings based around the visual format of the map, Bradford address the ways conceptions of race, class, sexuality and gender structure the ways in which inhabitants navigate the urban fabric of the modern metropolis: Black Venus, for example, is presented as the result of tracking the imagined titular subject through everyday surveillance technologies of googlemaps and sat-nav. The resulting works, which combine the abstract colour waves of a Gerhard Richter squeegee canvas with the texture of affichiste collages, are acutely keyed into the inequalities and divisions of modern city living, most notably the large-scale Mississippi Gottdam of 2007, in which swirling forms move underneath a silvered skin of metallic paint, evoking both watery motion and floating stands of hair, and merge with detritus Bradford collected from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans.
Bradford continues his investigation into the ingrained inequalities of city life in the Value series. Works such as Value 47 (2009-10), a conglomeration of billboard papers, cardboard, acrylic gel and nylon string, present the viewer with a series of material layers that have been torn or peeled away: a corrugated brown overlay tears to reveal a section of white paper, with jagged runs of neon pink glinting at the edges, and a fissure of blue, the colour of oxidised copper, running from the top down to the tear. The Value works are visually engrossing and highly appealing, and as their titles indicate, they encouage their viewers to think, very carefully, about the assumptions and associations that they might bring to particular textures, forms, surfaces, and, of course, colours. They are also playful - the pleasure Bradford takes in exploring the material qualities of diverse media is perceptible. This playfulness is also on display in the short film Niagara (2005), which riffs on the famous sashay shot of Marilyn Monroe in the film of that name to pay tribute to the bravery and beauty of Melvin, an openly gay African-American man, as he strides proudly though his neighbourhood.
Towards the end of the exhibition, viewers find themselves inside a multi-part, multimedia installation called Pinocchio is on Fire (2012). The piece comprises of a darkened room, its walls papered over with white papered lines, where visitors can sit, flooded by the music of a Nancy Wilson recording of Tell me the Truth from 1963. In an adjacent room, a shelf runs along a wall holding a series of record covers created from collaged paper sections, and headphones playing 80s-style hip-hop tracks recorded by Bradford. These are both funny and celebratory, once again displaying Bradford’s ability to create works that speak to the issues of ‘masculine’ subject hood, commercialisation and commodification, gently playing the pros and cons of cultural identities off against each other.