Art Mark Bradford ‘Cerberus’

The artist Mark Bradford, renowned for his abstract paintings with social underpinning, shows a gripping body of work inspired by the civil rights movement and the Watts riots.

I knew Mark Bradford was tall, but I was still impressed how tall he actually is when I met him in real life at the press view of his show ‘Cerberus’ at Hauser & Wirth in London. We talked about the city where we both lived, Amsterdam, which he frequently visited in his twenties. When I asked if there was a difference for him between the works hanging in the two gallery spaces at Hauser & Wirth he paused and said, “Intense [pointing at the work hanging in the north gallery] and more intense” [pointing at the works in the south gallery].

I was very much looking forward to this show as I visited in 2015 two thrilling shows by the American artist at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague and The Hammer in Los Angeles. I was impressed by his ‘artistic cartographies’ in which he combines a social underpinning with abstract painting. The map-like grid motifs are based on topographies of cities or social demographics. “My works exists between the two; the pavement of the sidewalk and the history of abstraction in art and my work falls in between,” he explained during the walkthrough tour of ‘Cerberus’.

A few days before Bradford’s tour I watched a taster video on the gallery’s website. He discussed the creative process behind ‘Violence in the City – An End or a Beginning?’ the landmark painting in the show. “After the Watts riots, the government commissioned the Moscone report to figure out what happened. Part of the report was a map with dots, green dots for burned down buildings, blue dots for looted stores, red dots for deaths […] during the making of the work I make small shifts. I decided I wasn’t going to use the hotspots anymore. When I pulled all the hotspots off they were things left and when I removed the grids it felt more botanical. I felt the urban grid gave way to an urban jungle. The land took back the city, half temple, half nature reclaiming it”.

The clip also provides insight into the spectacular and physical process of how Bradford makes his map-like grid motifs. On a stretched canvas he glues on its surface a dozen layers of paper, printed texts and photographs. Then with a power sander or a high pressure cleaner he starts to remove layers. To a certain extent the artist can’t foresee how the work will turn out in the end. Happy accidents occur such as fascinating layering of paper and wonderful colour juxtapositions.

In the south gallery, featuring the “more intense” works, you can hear the song ‘Dancing in the Street’ by Martha and the Vandellas played in a separate room behind a curtain. This infectious, uplifting song was released during the height of the civil rights movement in the US in 1964. The song was interpreted by many African Americans as a call to “demonstrate in the streets” in all the cities mentioned in the song.

Bradford has made a video installation of the song. Sitting at the back of a moving van he projects black-and-white footage of the band’s live performance and onto buildings that in 1965 were burned down. “It’s like recalling the spirit of that place, and at the same time inserting another history on top of it,” he commented on the work.

When he was driving through South Los Angeles at night projecting the images on the passing buildings Bradford had an encounter with the police. “Suddenly, a police man pulled up beside me and asked “what are you doing?” I answered, “I don’t know”. He gave me a look ‘you’re not making sense at all’ and he drove on as he didn’t know what to do with this.

The artist Paul Chan has commented on Bradford that he is trying to “situate his life as an artist in other ways besides simply being an artist.” I asked Bradford what makes him interested in what else can art do?

“I think sometimes the term ‘artist’ limits what we feel historically an artist can do. I just want to expand that. I think the definition of what an artist can do in the twenty-first century should be expanding. The term artist is too limited because in the public’s perception they’re still living in a very romantic, nineteenth century idea of what an artist is, but we’re changing. I’m doing it with my foundation Art and Practice which is going very well and I consider to be part of my practice. It’s nothing separate it’s just part of my practice as much as this artwork [in Cerberus] is. It is though to juggle all these things. It’s like having children and being an artist, but you figure it out”.

A few days later, I enjoyed the conversation between Mark Bradford and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, part of the Frieze Talks program. The conversation was very animated and Bradford spoke clearly and personably about his life and work.

Before becoming an artist he was a hairdresser at the salon of his mother in Los Angeles. At the end of the talk I was curious to know if there are any similarities between hairdressing and making art. “It is funny when you are in the service industry,” Mark began his answer. “It is really about what they [customers] want. You have to listen when they tell you how they want their hair styled. They don’t care what you want. If they want highlights, they want highlights.

In art it is all about listening to me. When I made that transition into my studio it was hard for a moment. People asked me, “What do you want Mark?” “Well, I don’t know, I’m not sure”. I’m the subject now. It was from being in the service industry to being about me.

Another thing is that I learned to finish things. You can’t get halfway through a haircut and go, “You know what I’m not just feeling it anymore. I need six months” and just walk away. I learned to finish things. When you are working through a project sometimes it just falls apart.

Here is a little truth I tell you: even a haircut falls apart, but I just have a good game face.
“Mark is it ok?”
“Absolutely” but it is so not ok and the customer will never know.

I learned that being an artist halfway through sometimes it falls apart. You get super nervous, you drop into a valley and I walked through a valley of death. You just learn to keep going. That’s the one thing I did learn from being a hairdresser. Keep going, finish and suddenly it is not so dark anymore then there is a little crack of light. So keep going and don’t worry emotionally sometimes how you feel. Sometimes it is not just great. I stopped saying “Oh, Mark how are you feeling today?” I never do that, I just go to the studio. I might whine a little bit, but I just push through and I deal with whatever is happening”.

Written by Thierry Somers
Mark Bradford, Cerberus, Hauser & Wirth London, until 21 December 2019