With its swarming hives of cellular spheres, deeply-entrenched dividing lines, and blood red paint flowing like rivers on the canvas, Mark Bradford’s “Lights and Tunnels”—the monumental centerpiece of his Scorched Earth exhibition on view at Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum—is at once cellular and societal. It refers in particular to the AIDS crisis and the 1992 Rodney King Riots. Bradford watched the latter unfold from his studio in Leimert Park.
Although his work draws heavily from the city of Los Angeles and its people, this is the first time he has been the subject of a solo museum exhibition in his hometown. With a myriad of massively successful museum shows in New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Zurich under his belt, the artist described this exhibit as a “class reunion” of sorts. It is a homecoming and a chance to share his voice with the culture that inspired it.
Raised by his mother in Santa Monica and West Adams, Bradford cut and colored tresses in her salon until 1991 when he enrolled at the prestigious California Institute of the Arts at 30 years old, earning his MFA in 1997. His artistic passion started early in his life as a pure love for making things, something he learned from watching his mother and grandmother sew.
“I had a strong tactile relationship to fabrics and to composition. The more I think about, it was almost like early abstraction. I would watch them get a piece of fabric and begin to cut it into pieces and then sew it together. The parts making a whole; I think even my paintings do that. I incrementally build my paintings up out of all the little parts.”
Bradford has breathed new life into a style known as abstract expressionism with his socially conscious works. When AbEx first gained popularity in the 1950s, its goal was to completely rid itself of all subject matter and emphasize pure aestheticism. Bradford infused this form with a meaning: the body and city in crisis.
“It’s about the freedom to dismantle and move icons around. I was fascinated by that type of propaganda and how it left out people of color and women. [I thought] let’s crack it back open, dust it off, and demand that more people are included.”
For Bradford, inclusion is at the very heart of his work. His canvases are geo-political maps, charting the movements and behaviors of society. Although often labeled a political artist, Bradford is hesitant to fully espouse this label to his paintings.
“I think some of the materials I use and some of the ideas that I’m interested in point to a political-ness, but I also allow myself a lot of play, abstraction, and room for the unknown—for questions. It’s both. It has one foot in art history and one foot in civilization.” It’s the melding of these two worlds that allows us to see the connections and recognize society and expression as one.
Bradford recently sat down in conversation with Anita Hill—who greatly inspired his notions of civilization. Notable as a lawyer and professor of law, social policy, and women’s studies at Brandeis University, Hill famously testified against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in a widely publicized 1991 sexual harassment scandal. Bradford spoke to the squashing of victim’s voices by elucidating how we water down these injustices using language. “I don’t like to call it civil unrest,” he says, “I call them riots. I don’t like making everything sound nice. They say, ‘she was violated.’ No, she was raped. Put it where it is, so we can have the urgency around it. You don’t cool off things that should stay hot.”
Stand for a moment in front of a Mark Bradford piece and one can feel the heat. The artist holds close to the notion that the “ideas surrounding art can have an influence on policy.” He argues that ideas have the power to spark interest and compassion for the plight of strangers because of their inherent connectivity. Artistic endeavors may seem trivial in comparison to the Goliath-esque political maze, but as Bradford has proven, the miniscule and colossal are truly one and the same.