Three years ago I wrote a review titled “Is Mark Bradford the Best Painter in America?” It wasn’t an altogether serious question, but it wasn’t facetious either. Bradford is among the most gifted artists working today, infusing his work with material invention, social consciousness and an epic sense of history. That his solo debut at Hauser & Wirth would confirm his status in the contemporary firmament comes as no surprise; what’s unexpected is the noise.
Throughout his career, Bradford has been, and I feel as if this should be put into quotes, “more than just a painter.” He has done installations, videos, and sculptural objects, most notably the 70-foot-high plywood ark he made in 2008 for the Prospect.1 biennial, which was held in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Pan-disciplinary activity is rife throughout the practice of any number of artists, and so Bradford’s forays into areas outside of painting can in no way be considered out of the ordinary. The difference is that he is so consummately a painter, and his paintings hold such a commanding position in the current scene, that his parallel paths run the risk of being regarded as distractions.
That would be a mistake. While the bulk of the exhibition, which is called Mark Bradford. Be Strong Boquan (after a line taken from a performance video that’s featured in the show), is composed of large abstract paintings, the first thing you encounter is “Deimos” (2015), a Cinemascope-scaled video projection depicting enormous orange wheels careening across an unspecified expanse to the beat of Sylvester’s 1978 disco anthem “Grateful.”
This giddy confection sets the tone for show and introduces Bradford’s underplayed approach to his layered, hot-button themes, which range, according the gallery’s press release, “from the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s and society’s misrepresentation and fear of queer identity, to the brutality and lasting outrage resulting from the race riots in Los Angeles during the early 1990s.”
Sylvester (Sylvester James, Jr.) was a flamboyant drag entertainer who died of AIDS in 1988, and what we see spinning across the screen in “Deimos” (“dread” in Greek, the name of one of the two moons of Mars) are roller skate wheels, shot in close-up from a worm’s-eye view, as they’re tossed helter-skelter across Bradford’s studio floor.
Despite its infectious vibe, the video rings of emptiness and loss: the vacant, unadorned backdrop; the wheels, detached from their skates, at first bouncing brightly and then slowing to a stop. The party’s over.
In his comments during the press preview, the artist talked about the vibrant roller disco nightlife of pre-plague Los Angeles and, in the years of sorrow that ensued, the defiance of 19-year-old friends, incontinent with AIDS, who would wear a diaper to go clubbing.
Bradford referred repeatedly to “the social” as the basis for his art, and it’s his awareness of community that invests his dazzling, process-oriented abstractions with their sense of urgency. This is the first time he has attempted to address AIDS in his work — the paintings are based on microscopic views of the sarcoma cell — after having gained enough time and distance to deal with the disease’s devastation in the vocabulary of art. As he said in his remarks, instead of mapping the land, in this work he is mapping the body.
That he does so in terms of visual beauty and earthy humor (the video presentation “Spiderman,” 2015, which includes the “Boquan” line, is a closed-captioned blank screen that presents Bradford in a credible stand-up routine — complete with laugh track — culminating in a string of AIDS jokes) is another reason to pay close attention to this remarkable artist.
In my previous review, I felt that he had been staying in his comfort zone of billboard-derived, text-based abstractions, but concluded that “Bradford hasn’t changed his approach simply because there is so much left to do in the one he’s got.” He hasn’t technically changed his approach with the new paintings, either, though they look very different. While still complex, the networked patterns and countless lines give way to major and minor shapes and accentuated figure/ground interactions.
In the most stunning piece in the show, the 10-by-10-foot “Cigarettes and Bubble Gum” (2015), cross-crossing lines, many emanating from starburst shapes, are predominantly pink in the upper portion of the canvas, but change in the lower half into ragged and smeared layers of gray, lying above and beneath one another with a captivating illusion of three-dimensional space.
Other large works, such as “Let’s Walk to the Middle of the Ocean” (2015), with its sea of blue along the bottom of the canvas, might recall the Abstract Expressionist heyday of Clyfford Still and Willem de Kooning, but they are essentially, curiously, of our moment. They may have found a few of AbEx’s old clothes at the bottom of modern art’s steamer trunk, but where a postwar painter would flood the surface with angst-ridden waves of paint, Bradford employs colored paper, starbursts, and swathes of patterned spots that kick the proceedings into into a postmodernist/process domain and collapse the specter of disease into the exuberance of the clubs and the dynamism the streets. His art looks paradox in the eye and chooses all available contradictions.
Another room holds exquisite smaller canvases (if you think of 5-by-4 feet as small) riddled with black spots, most against a white-ish ground, though there is one, the ravishingly graphic “Black and White” (2015), with a mostly black field that evokes a richly textured ebony moonscape. Bradford referred to the spots simply as “marks,” suggesting a primarily formalist/materialist intent, but, given the convulsive violence sweeping across domestic and international affairs, they struck me more as bullet holes than anything else.
All of these works (and others, including a massive sculpture made from long, colorful strips of wallboard hanging from a ceiling beam — the residue of painting surfaces pulled off during his generative process) are awash in the sound of Bradford’s voice doing “Spiderman” (which is the artist’s response to Eddie Murphy’s raunchy 1983 feature-length stand-up film Delirious) toward the back of the gallery, and Sylvester’s voice singing “Grateful” near the front. Surprisingly, the audio never intrudes on the contemplation of the paintings; rather, in a peculiar way it completes them.
The paintings, in concept and execution, are meant to be just as socially oriented, just as directly engaging as the videos. You may feel, as you enter the gallery, that you’re walking into a party, but it’s one whose celebration is based on an acute gratitude for the dwindling days of our lives, the euphoria of roller-skating past the grave.
Mark Bradford. Be Strong Boquan continues at Hauser & Wirth (511 West 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 23.