I once sat next to Mark Bradford at a dinner party after helping out with some Art:21 events at an educator conference where he was the keynote speaker. That dinner was one of my favorite moments spent with a famous artist, and I’ll always remember the idea Mark and I came up with to build a “lofticle” — a cubicle with a loft that would give worker bees extra space for napping, reading or thinking. I probably never forgot this idea because I spend a lot of time in a one-level cube imagining a ladder leading to somewhere more lofty. But it was also memorable because Mark Bradford was inspiring and kind, even to his handlers, despite his worldwide, art-star status.
At the conference, Bradford suggested radical ideas. Teachers lined up to hug him afterwards, and he later went on to write curriculum with The Getty and SFMOMA. One of his lesson plans involves writing down the lyrics to your favorite song, then cutting up and rearranging the words to convey a different meaning. This idea was influenced by his own practice, which involves lots of intricate cutting and reordering. A traveling retrospective of his work is currently on view at SFMOMA where you can see his paintings, sculptures, installations and films. He describes an early film making experience in this short video that I’ve watched many times. It represents one of the reasons why I adore Mark Bradford — his abstract storytelling is top notch. And his stories are genuine, both verbally and visually.
The show is an expansive introduction to Bradford’s oeuvre. Each piece represents a reflection of the artist’s life and surroundings at the time it was made. His large-scale works are arguably collage, but he thinks of them as paintings, which makes sense when you see them in person. He works with found signage and other paper objects, using variations on (self-described) decoupage techniques to create massive, abstract works. Some pieces incorporate recognizable, time-specific snippets, such as neon bits of color from iPod billboard ads of the early 2000s. Bradford’s art beautifully preserves contemporary culture, representing (sometimes literally) the signs of our times. He also uses merchant posters found on the streets of L.A., transforming them into art that speaks about commerce and social structures.
Some of the work involves serious sanding, layering, reducing and adding paper to create texture and dynamism. If you look closely and chronologically, you might notice when the artist moved from hand-sanding to power-sanding. While Bradford’s work can be appreciated on any level, even at first glance, I recommend studying up. Watch the film about him on Art:21 and listen to SFMOMA’s recent interviews with the artist where he talks about specific pieces, like a film of him swaggering down a street in slow motion — it’s a tribute to a character from the South Los Angeles neighborhood where he keeps a studio in the same building where his mother used to have a hair salon. He grew up working in the salon, painting signage, and later incorporating some of the materials (like the hair papers used for perms) into his work.
There is so much to appreciate about Mark Bradford that the exhibition continues across the street with another installation at YBCA. I’m headed there next and I know it will be impressive, because that’s how Mark Bradford rolls.
Mark Bradford’s work is on display at SFMOMA from February 18 – June 17, 2012. For more information, visit sfmoma.org.