At first sight, Mark Bradford’s paintings attract viewers with their bright colors and often grand scale. As anyone who’s gotten a little closer knows, the work becomes both richer and more enigmatic the closer you look. Bradford’s process of layering and stripping away adds a dimension of time to the works — the viewer comes to appreciate, if not fully understand, what once existed as part of the painting, how the work appears now, and all the steps in between.
Bradford was born in 1961 in Los Angeles, where he still lives and works. Major awards have included a MacArthur Fellowship in 2009 and his election as a National Academician in 2013. Earlier this month, he opened his newest solo exhibition, Be Strong Boquan, at the Chelsea location of Hauser & Wirth.
Bradford and I met after he led a preview of his new work at the gallery, during which he referenced the 1980s AIDS crisis and the prejudices still perpetuated in comedy (one of the pieces in the show, a new video titled “Spiderman” , deals with this directly). He’s an expressive speaker whose hands, appropriately for a painter, illustrate what he has to say in broad strokes. He’s quick to laugh, and subtle self-deprecation slips into his discussion of his art. His works speak for themselves, though: grand, virtuosic paintings and, at Hauser & Wirth, the thought-provoking videos that bookend them.
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Alina Cohen: You spoke about the discourse around AIDS. What would you like to see happen now in the way we speak about it?
Mark Bradford: I think it’s gotten better. People are apologetic now. I don’t think anyone has to “apologize,” but with comedy, I think it would be nice if they could expand the butt of the joke past the female. It gets old. We’ve heard that. I don’t particularly like comedy. I think it’s mean. There are a few people I like: Amy Schumer — there’s something about her. I like Wanda Sykes.
I follow things I’m interested in and I investigate them. Sometimes they turn into work. That’s what “Spiderman” came out of. I’m always thinking, shooting video, writing, painting. It doesn’t all make it into an exhibition. I’m constantly investigating things.
AC: You said you were looking at cells under microscopes, too.
MB: I was wondering at what moment the HIV enters into and changes a cell. At what point do you start having a really bad day? And pregnancy — the whole debate about Planned Parenthood is trying to figure out when life begins. There’s this whole debate about when one thing becomes another.
AC: The social and political dimensions are so evident in your work when you speak about them, but those connotations might not be as obvious to someone walking into the gallery for the first time.
MB: At the end of the day, the paintings rest within abstraction. The social content exists a little bit beneath the surface. When you dig, though, I think the work opens up. I think with the video work, the connotations are more evident. I bookended the paintings with the videos so they’d create a conversation, a relationship. That being said, I’m not asking every viewer to load the paintings up with only political content. These are, after all, paintings. And I’m OK with that too.
AC: People are conspicuously absent from your work. In the first video here, “Deimos” (2015), we see wheels from roller skates but not skaters. In the paintings, we see forms that resemble human cells but not humans. In the final video, “Spiderman,” we hear a comedian speaking but we don’t see his body. What prompts this choice?
MB: It’s about not showing an overdetermined body. It’s almost like existing in the shadows a little bit. I throw out these fragments and details of things I’m interested in. I notice it’s a distancing from some kind of overdetermined black body that is so media-driven and politically embattled. Sure, in “Spiderman,” I reference something that happened with a man who couldn’t breathe in the subway, but I had to find a way into it where the body wasn’t there. When I’m grappling with things, I’m also trying to figure out how I feel about them.
I’m always speaking from a subject position. Especially with recent history, I’m never even sure how I feel about what’s going on around the African American man and the policing. To want to talk about current topics and find a freedom in them, I had to pull the body out.
AC: You said that it took a while to speak and make work about the AIDS crisis. Do you think in a few years you’ll want to make work about what’s going on in the news now?
MB: Not necessarily. There were certain elements of the AIDS crisis that really formed my personality. The ’80s haunted me, and I ran — I travelled the world, I stayed five minutes ahead of the Grim Reaper. It was like, if I was going to die, I might as well travel. I came to understand that whatever birthright I was given to be young and reckless and to have all the mindless unsafe sex and drugs, that contract became null and void when the epidemic came on the scene. “Safe sex” and “19 years old” don’t go together in the same sentence. They still don’t. But it’s a little different from syphilis or gonorrhea or “I’m pregnant.” It was just a really complex time and a generational thing. It was just the new kid on the block. I ran around totally haunted in the ’80s, I went to school in the ’90s, and then I started my career in the 2000s.
I don’t always talk about these subjects. Sometimes it’s just pure abstraction. I’m interested in the history of abstraction, of unpacking the ’50s. What does it mean to unpack that moment, when both Jackson Pollock and Emmett Till were on magazine covers? Abstraction was becoming this huge thing at the time of Civil Rights. It’s fascinating. I don’t know what I really feel about it.
AC: There’s something a little grotesque about the paintings. Something seems to be rising up from beneath the surface, like an illness or boils on your skin.
MB: At the same time, there’s heroism in people who struggle with life-altering physical issues. There’s something so strong about people who get up everyday and live with life-threatening illnesses. I think it’s a quiet battle.
AC: How about the materials themselves? I noticed it says “mixed media” for everything.
MB: It’s all paper — found paper, store-bought paper, urban paper. Some string, twine, rope. It’s like Home Depot meets Paper Source. I use paper in a very painterly way because I use it wet. I don’t use it dry. I have to will it into a fluidness that paper doesn’t have on its own. I like that. I like willing something into existence that necessarily shouldn’t happen.
AC: At what point do you know you’re finished with a work?
MB: Like a relationship, you always know when it’s done. I go through everything. I go from the first little “hi” to the first date, to the engagement, the marriage, it’s not working out, divorce, dividing everything up, goodbye. So by the time I’m done with a painting, I’ve gone through everything with it. I feel no attachment to it once it’s done, other than I wish it luck.
AC: And when you see it again?
MB: It’s like seeing an old partner, like “hey, I remember you,” but I’m glad I’m not with you. When I look at my work, I remember everything I went through. Some relationships were more enjoyable than others.
Mark Bradford: Be Strong Boquan continues at Hauser & Wirth (511 W 18th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 23.