LOS ANGELES — Visitors to Scorched Earth, Mark Bradford’s exhibition at the Hammer Museum, are greeted in the lobby by a map that shows the US population infected with AIDS by state. The map, titled “Finding Barry” (all works 2015), is carved into the wall, exposing marbled layers of paint from previous lobby projects. This technique mirrors the sandblasting that Bradford uses to create his multidimensional paintings and connects the new work to a rich institutional tradition (the title refers to an earlier Hammer lobby project by Barry McGee). The map’s statistics are from 2009; during an August 2 Hammer Conversation with law professor Anita Hill, Bradford said he “wanted to show a map that wasn’t [set in the] present. So from 2009 to now, I wanted [the viewer] to have a leap in imagination.”
The numbers are sobering and so large as to be numbing, but when “Finding Barry” is seen as part of the entire show, the map functions as a bird’s-eye view of Scorched Earth‘s thematic terrain. On view through September 27, the small but compelling exhibition consists of the lobby piece, a video work, and 12 paintings. Surprisingly, it is Bradford’s first solo museum show in his native Los Angeles. While Scorched Earth takes on enormous topics such as the AIDS crisis, the 1992 Los Angeles riots, and the charged political atmosphere of the early 1990s, Bradford maintains focus by examining the spectrum between the macro (the nation at large) and the micro (the individual body).
“Spiderman,” a video work inspired by 1980s stand-up comedy, is presented in a stand-alone gallery adjacent to the rest of the exhibition. The video has no images, only subtitles that accompany Bradford’s recorded performance as the titular fictional comedian, a transgender man who delivers his routine to a responsive but invisible audience. During the August 2 talk, the artist described the impetus for the work: “I sometimes find some stand-up comedians harsh towards women and otherness. They have a harsh gaze. I remember seeing the Eddie Murphy [film] Delirious […] and I remember sitting in the audience and thinking, ‘Oh, gay-bashing has entered into the public domain as being acceptable.’ […] Those things fascinate me because there’s no protection for those bodies once they’re accepted in the public as being OK for abuse.”
Inside the main galleries, the painting portion of the exhibition opens with a large mixed media painting with collage elements. “Rebuild South Central Without Liquor Stores!!” it implores, with the same message below in Spanish. The painting’s hopeful tone is compounded by the upbeat chartreuse, coral, and fuchsia colors of the blocky lettering. During his talk, Bradford explained that the painting was inspired by a photograph of a handmade sign, created by a local church group, which appeared in the neighborhood after the 1992 Los Angeles riots. While the work’s use of text is a departure from the other pieces in the show, “Rebuild South Central” imparts a sense of specific place and time to the paintings that follow.
The other works on view are electrifying compositions inspired by cells infected with the HIV virus. What appear to be wholly abstract works are, in fact, representational views of objects that are organic in form, morphing, and wounded. The paintings are unified by a biological color palette — bright pinks and whites, bruised gray-blues, congealed-blood reds, and thick browns and blacks. The three works near the entrance, titled “Sample 1,” “Sample 2,” and “Sample 3,” are layered ominously, with sharp cuts exposing hidden pink layers and brown spots pinwheeling across their surfaces. “Dead Hummingbird” has a similarly layered and spotted background, with a mottled, bird-shaped void in its center.
Some compositions — including three untitled black and pink paintings — appear to show the body in slightly less extreme closeup, as a series of whirling blood flows. These large paintings were made on black paper through the use of a technique similar to transfer lithography, producing delicately branching pink and white negative spaces. Other works, such as “Lights and Tunnels” and “The Next Hot Line,” recall the map imagery in Bradford’s previous work.
In a recent New Yorker profile by Calvin Tomkins, Bradford described the inspiration for the exhibition: “I don’t want to say the show is about AIDS, but it’s about the body, and about my relationship to the 1980s, when all that stuff hit. It’s my using a particular moment and abstracting it.” The title of the show harks back to a previous piece — “Scorched Earth” is a 2006 map-like painting inspired by the war in Iraq and the 1921 Tulsa riots, when white mobs torched the city’s prosperous African-American neighborhood. While Bradford’s earlier, cartographic paintings show trauma from an aerial perspective, the standout new paintings here produce a similar effect by showing trauma up close, zeroing in until the imagery becomes abstract in form.