How do you modernize modern abstract painting? If you are beloved Los Angeles-based painter and collage artist Mark Bradford, you build thick, impasto-inspired canvas surfaces with ten to fifteen layers of paper in the form of attention-grabbing advertisements, photographs, newsprint, magazines, posters, and comic book panels. Shellacked with glue and lacquer, you dry them in the sun, bleach them, and sand them down, partially exposing the forgotten strata below. With Bradford’s wildly inventive, semi-geological paintings, the viewer acts as an archaeologist from some distant future excavating the remains of our modern society. Also acting as socio-political city maps and diagrams of the human body, this MacArthur Fellow’s masterful large-scale fusions of Abstract Expressionism, Pop art, and Street art allow the audience to consider issues of LGBTQ rights, the AIDS epidemic, and systemic racism through the lens of both the micro and the macro.
Following his triumphant May 2017 Venice Biennale exhibition, Tomorrow is Another Day at the United States Pavilion featuring an eerily delipidated black and gold plaster rotunda dome as a statement on the country’s dark moral history and the current state of the American democracy under the Trump administration, Mark Bradford is currently the subject of a far more intimate show, New Works at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles.
As the artist’s first gallery presentation in his hometown since 2002, this much-anticipated collection of ten brand-new paintings, all completed over the past two months, delve into the over-the-top drama of comic books. As scraps of semi-legible comic book panels are infused into the skins of the paintings here, they are teeming with stories of evil-doers, heroes, and cities that need saving. These fantastical images reflect Bradford’s childhood passion for the genre which developed after he moved to Santa Monica from South Central Los Angeles. The eleven-year-old Bradford initially adapted well to the affluent beachside community, but soon started cutting classes to surf. With his introduction to science fiction and comic books at age thirteen, the budding artist soon became immersed in these sensational stories and deeply enjoyed their heightened emotionality, both of which helped Bradford overcome feelings of alienation in this new environment.
As an avid reader of Archie, Superman, Batman, Spiderman, and Wonder Woman, Bradford also found himself drawn to the lively and loud visual language presented in comic books. Here we see him experiment with electric orange, teal blue, crimson red hues as well as roughly grid-like, interwoven lesions and gashes on the canvases resembling spider webs, streets, veins, and comic strip panels themselves, perhaps referencing violence, blood, and dangerous action scenes. Bradford even named several of the pieces in the show after speech bubble phrasing he found in the comics used.
Not the first artist to weave comic strip narratives and aesthetics into his artmaking, Bradford is perhaps referencing legendary American Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein here. Rising to prominence in the 1960s, Lichtenstein was renowned for his highly artificial, action-packed paintings depicting airplane crashes and melodramatic romance. For Bradford, the exaggerated, hyperbolic storylines seen in comic books and Lichtenstein’s work are just as relevant today as they were nearly sixty years ago, as we are currently living through another highly dramatic period in American life in which it is incredibly easy to feel helpless and long for some hero to save the day.
As one of the centerpieces of New Works, 2018’s Bird of Paradise perfectly exemplifies this amplified drama with its somewhat ambiguous central flower painted vivid orange and canary yellow. Here we see Bradford blending lush and vegetative imagery with gritty, Piet Mondrian-esque street grids.
In You’re going to regret this when I catch you, you little shit (2018) the viewer sees hints of this rigid urban planning overlaid with countless undulating streams of burgundy. This haunting image looks as if all the cracks and crevices on the canvas are hemorrhaging blood.
Bathed in a gentle blue aura and featuring streaks of curvaceous forms in magenta, lavender, and violet, Moody Blues for Jack Whitten (2018) is Bradford’s homage to the life and legacy of the recently deceased abstract painter and civil rights activist Jack Whitten. Celebrated for his process-centric “Slab” paintings, Whitten famously dragged squeegees, Afro combs, and homemade rakes across thick, paint-soaked canvases to create blurred “energy fields” resembling long-exposure photographs. First introduced to Whitten’s work through art journals and catalogs, Bradford was working on this piece when he received a text on January 20, 2018, alerting him that Whitten had died from complications of chronic leukemia. He chose to complete the work, imagining Whitten instructing him, “Now, Mr. Bradford, you finish this painting and you make it the best it can be.”
Undoubtedly a roller coaster of emotions, this collection offers soft, reverential mourning as well as high-impact, archetypal narratives of bloodshed, passion, justice, heroes, and villains. In this chaotic world where bad deeds often go unpunished, we crave the superhero landscape of clear-cut good, evil and comeuppance. Drawing inspiration from Bradford’s childhood, his heroes, as well as his take on the current political landscape, here we see the personal and political bleed together in courageous defiance of Abstract Expressionism’s original apolitical, anti-content stance.
Featured Image: You’re going to regret this when I catch you, you little shit, detail.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.