WALTHAM, Massachusetts — There are two large buoys hanging in the front windows of the landlocked Rose Art Museum, sitting like beacons behind the glass façade. Drawn in by the swollen structures, I climbed the stairs, past Chris Burden’s “Light of Reason,” and into Mark Bradford’s imaginary waters.
The collection, completed in the six months leading up to the show, is a reimagining of the artist’s interest in the geography of his native South Central Los Angeles, a preoccupation visible in the map-like surfaces of his earlier efforts. Titled Sea Monsters, this body of work continues Bradford’s practice of utilizing neighborhood signage and found paper as pigment, layered alla prima and then sanded down to reveal an explosion of undulating colors beneath, carefully mediated and directed with caulk and rope.
But the abstract cityscapes of Bradford’s oeuvre take a mythical turn in Sea Monsters, which the artist describes as inspired by Medieval and Renaissance maps and the otherworldly creatures they depict. In the wall text, it’s made clear the monsters of Bradford’s source material don’t only signal perilous waters, but also encourage exploration of otherwise uncharted territory. Bradford’s body of work seems like a temporally removed response to that call — presenting an alternative cartography of his lived space through the five substantial canvases and six maritime buoys that ring the gallery space.
In particular I found that the painting “No Time to Expand the Sea” (2014) embodied the tension that comes from abstracting a very real and physical space. The mediation of gridded and straight lines with more organic interventions spoke to the tension between a liquidity linked to the ephemeral and otherworldly of Bradford’s inspiration and the groundedness of his interests in cartographical processes and physical embodiment.
Along with Bradford’s more traditional works on canvas, the space is littered with six buoys, collectively titled Sea Pigs. They are treated with the same process as the two-dimensional work, primed with wet canvas, and layered with paper which is then uncovered to various degrees, crisscrossed by intervening materials. The result is that each buoy’s surface appears fractured into seemingly infinite shapes of varying size and color. On the hanging and fully inflated buoys, the treatment highlights their form’s bulbousness; it feels like the structure within might break out of its mapped shell, popping paper like cartoon buttons off a fat man’s coat, whereas the collapsed buoys look like failed papier-mâché projects, deflated and abandoned. Despite the novelty of displacement that’s achieved by placing the maritime objects in a gallery space, and the reworking of their surfaces, they lack the rigor of the large works on canvas.
Moving past the main room and into the stairway, which leads down to a John Altoon retrospective traveling from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), is where I found the real conceptual meat of the show. The hallway is entirely taken over by The King’s Mirror, a series of layered commercial posters advertising quick cash for homes. The installation seems to represent the real sea monster, or danger to Bradford’s neighborhood, exploitative “quick relief” in the midst of the housing crash.
The posters read “Sexy Cash We Buy Houses Ugly-Nice-Old-New 323-606-7854” in varying colors and states of legibility on a background of plywood, all especially designed for the usually blank hallway. A docent at the Rose tipped me off that this telephone number is live: if dialed it will reach the titular “Sexy Cash” company.
Bradford’s medium is its own geological and geographical exploration, moving or grinding downward into his materials, capturing and reflecting a physical and cultural topography. In the new paintings, however, this mapped geography is liquefied. In an interview for White Cube about this exhibition, Bradford discusses transforming the streets and boulevards (presumably of Los Angeles, where he lives and works) into waterways, like those of Venice. However, I’d argue that the lacerations that run through the canvas read more like forces controlling and containing a viscosity that extends beyond imagined roadways, encompassing the whole environment.
Mark Bradford: Sea Monsters continues at the Rose Art Museum (415 South Street, Waltham) through December 21.