Artist Mark Bradford – collaging a life with paper/glue/string – retrospective now at SFMOMA/YBC Feb 18 – Jun 17

I have to admit I was somewhat skeptical of SFMOMA’s full page ad in The Examiner announcing Mark Bradford’s concurrent show with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; skeptical of what I would actually see on their white walls.  “Mark Bradford’s lush, richly textured, large-scale works express the energy of the urban environment through layers of materials scavenged from the street and subjects addressing race, class, gender, and sexuality.”  What the hell is the urban environment let alone its energy?  I was born in LA (I guess that could fit the definition) moved to South Pasadena (nope, not urban really but part of LA County and 10 minutes away from downtown LA via the Pasadena freeway), and now live in San Francisco (urban to most, for example the south side of Bernal Heights hill that overlooked the Alemany projects,  but no – not urban where I live now in District 7.)  Did the curator/copy editor mean City Life or Street Life because they aren’t one in the same.  Needless to say the ad worked.  I went to see the shows, looking to make the ad wrong (or right) – where and how was race, class, gender, and sexuality an integral part of Bradford’s art?


Bradford partially answered the call with an audacious piece, a taxidermied black crow flying so far above my head/slamming beak first into a wall at SFMOMA that I almost missed it; as I found throughout the show, Bradford is playing, poking, & prodding in his titles as well as the work itself. The broke beak bird offers overt and subtle references to Jim Crow laws as well as black-face minstrel shows.

Mark Bradford panel 4 "Rat Catcher of Hamelin"

                                                                                                            On view at YBC is Bradford’s 2011 Rat Catcher of Hamelin. YBC’s website describes this as “a large-scale four–panel mixed media collage created for the Istanbul biennial. 50 billboards collected from all around South-Central Los Angeles form the basis of this socially charged abstract art. Sanded, stripped surfaces reveal what lies below.”  

As a writer and a visual artist, I am a sucker for words or letters or literary messages embedded in living color within an object of art.  What YBC’s teaser on-line left out you find out in the show.  The four panels partially contain fragments of 50 billboards previously posted to assist the LAPD in the Grim Sleeper serial killer case (photos of unidentified women found in the suspect’s possession.)  After public uproar over the “postings” to assist in the case LAPD pulled the billboards; Bradford contacted authorities and obtained them for his own appropriation/art-making.  Breathing new meaning to appropriated billboard materials/found images – this is at the core of Bradford’s artistic practice.  In Rat Catcher of Hamelin, his source images are as important as the structure/they are obliterated/barely there yet articulated – CAN YOU HELP – technically the paper build up is so thick, the words are carved up & out.

Bradford hits gender (identify) over the head with an earlier piece Paris is Burning (I remember when the film came out.)  “Fuck straight people” is embedded/carved right there in the collage for all to make out if you look close enough to see.

While beautiful – both in technique and inventiveness – Bradford’s work goes beyond pretty things.  There is meaning for me here hanging on the walls and in his process; I am willing to trust what Bradford digs in and claws out.