LOS ANGELES — I brought my five-year-old son to see Mark Bradford’s new exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, and he immediately connected the paintings to the exposed brick walls in the courtyard, spottily covered with paint remnants from years past. I mention this not to suggest that my son is unusually observant, but to point out that Bradford’s immersion in the urban environment remains remarkably consistent, a relationship so clear even a child can see it.
Yet some aspects of his new works have shifted. As my son and I walked through the show, he saw a swirling storm in “I heard you got arrested today” (all works 2018), a beetle escaping a spider web in “What are you doing in here,” and a fish caught in a net in “Rocket.” Bradford’s latest abstractions have shifted away from resembling aerial views of the urban grid or cellular views of disease, to name two major themes that have occupied him. These 10 new paintings are engaged with natural forms, many of them shot through with foreboding.
To my son’s associations I would add several of my own: a decaying bird of paradise flower in “Bird of Paradise,” gushing surges of water and wind in “Moody Blues for Jack Whitten,” and a vast canyon filled with buttes in “Tonight…we feed!” All the works are endlessly intricate; Bradford collages multiple layers of comics and paint, then cutting into them and peeling away, exposing lower strata, the canvas support, and cross sections of comic pages revealed like geology in the walls of the Grand Canyon. “Rocket,” for example, features large passages of comics that are virtually untouched, along with areas in which Bradford’s paint applications and paper excavations create an image that is coherent from a distance but produces data overload when viewed up close.
These works are beautiful, large, and baroque. The allusions to natural phenomena connect Bradford to Romantic notions of the sublime, in which nature was used to convey overwhelming power. But he seems to be after something different, identifying the sense of awe within this tradition and insinuating it into a different milieu. Call it an information age sublime, wherein Bradford delivers an overwhelming amount of visual data with beauty’s full force, resulting in an experience we cannot fully understand or digest. The paintings tell us how much we don’t know.
To more deeply consider Bradford’s relationship with the sublime, it is helpful to explore his use of comic book pages in lieu of the endpapers or posters torn off city walls that were once his most conspicuous materials. In some of the new paintings the comics are so obscured as to have no meaningful presence, but in many works the pages play a substantial, fully visible role. Snatches of text jump out at eye level, “I know who the murderer is,” or “I’m dying, I’m dying, let me die.” Comics, particularly the superhero genre, are both escapist and confront reality. After all, Superman and Captain America spent a good deal of their early careers battling Nazis, and their worlds were conveniently devoid of moral ambiguities. Bradford is using contemporary comics, whose glossy pages contain far more complicated characters than the 20th century offered up (superheroes nowadays experience painful self-doubt, depression, and a host of emotions that never clouded Superman’s heart), but super powers still provide solutions that are hard to come by in real life (Spiderman can be seen swinging through the panels in “Rocket”).
Bradford made these paintings at a time when much of the United States is seduced by visions of sinister outsiders stealing across our borders, not to mention the resurgence of white supremacy following our country’s first black president, both delusions that appeal to the American white majority’s desire for a scapegoat, a sense of security and power, and a navigable world of clear distinctions. Comics deliver straightforward storytelling and graphic clarity, but Bradford transforms them into a foundation for abstraction. The difficulty in reducing his work to a specific narrative or image constitutes a refusal of our desire for answers. He offers neither heroic good guys nor “bad hombres” onto whom we can project our fears and hatreds.
Bradford’s paintings remain stubbornly inscrutable, however much we may try to tame them through interpretation. Their complexity and scale are powerful enough to awe us, and the works lie far enough outside our routine frameworks of thought that if we are to engage them at all we need to simply accept their otherness, a capacity we would all be wise to develop in this segregated and strife-riven country.
Mark Bradford: New Works continues at Hauser & Wirth (901 E 3rd St, Los Angeles) through May 20.
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