The difficulty in viewing photographs of artwork is that the camera flattens the object in its focus, relinquishing subtleties in order to capture a whole. Because his oeuvre is very subtle indeed, Mark Bradford’s work requires a viewer’s presence to be fully appreciated. Very little of the slender lines of collage, delicate papers built up in thin layers or washes of paint almost completely sanded away is apparent in reproduction. Each of the more than forty of Bradford’s works now on view at SFMOMA calls out to be felt, if not by the hand of the viewer then by the eye. They elicit a state of tactile vision, a reminder that visual perception is also connected to the faculty of touch.
In the scholarship regarding his work, much has been made of the condition and location of Bradford’s studio practice.* He grew up (and still lives) in South Central Los Angeles, a mainly black neighborhood mythologized for its urban decay. Bradford worked at his mother’s hair salon before attending art school, learning skills that he would adapt to his practice: hard work, repetitive actions and tactile processes. He gleans his materials from the posters, billboard papers, and hair salon permanent-wave end papers that are still part of his environment. And while all this information surely contributes to an important analysis of his work based in socio-economics, race and culture, it ignores the physicality and lushness of the actual surfaces and the connection of Bradford’s work to textiles.
Up close, the dense materiality of each piece intrigues with a kind of sumptuous dissolution; there is tension between order and chaos, rigid geometries and decay. Layers and layers of papers and paint built up over time manifest the tactile nature of his working process, while the sanding between layers wears away the visible to the point of ruin. Each surface affirms Bradford’s physical presence, because these are techniques that can only be achieved by putting sinew and muscle in service of production. Though he calls them paintings, Bradford’s work more precisely exists in the productive space between painting, collage, and textiles. Many of the smaller and mid-scale collages are built on stretched canvases, allusions to the image-framing and containment of the traditional painting. However, several larger works are created on unstretched canvas that adds a layer of dimensionality to the form. For example, the surface of You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You) undulates like fabric—it’s not really flat at all—and the edges are ragged and crusted with cracked paint. Though I include a photograph of the work below, the camera fails to capture the tangible thicknesses at the edges of torn papers, the white areas sanded smooth, the divots and pockmarks in the grids, or the directional marks of a brush dragged through thick gel medium. These surfaces create the haptic character of the work.
Moreover, Bradford’s methodology and compositions echo weavings and piecework. As with textiles, the surfaces of Bradford’s work are created by obsessive repetition, much like a weaving is created by passing the shuttle back and forth on the loom. Bradford carefully slices billboard papers and posters into fine strips and layers them densely. From a distance, these arrangements of horizontal and vertical strips resemble the over-and-under patterning of a woven cloth. Likewise, the use of permanent-wave end papers in repetitive sequences across the surface calls to mind the geometries of quilts and other fabric constructions. Combining the visual motifs of textile forms with the visual tactility of the haptic creates a connection to textiles that other analyses have overlooked.
Since not much has been made of the work’s connection to cloth, I was eager to ask Bradford about this perceived reference to textiles. During our conversation in one quiet gallery of the museum, the artist confirmed this relationship, stating that his mother and grandmother were seamstresses. Bradford remembers his mother’s lessons of choosing fabric. “I grew up touching,” he told me. “I would find a fabric that looked good and [my mother] would tell me, no, it’s not good fabric, just feel it.” In the museum the eye acts as a surrogate for the fingers, passing over each ripple, raw edge, or smoothly sanded surface. The haptic nature of Bradford’s work combined with the compositional reference to textiles creates an altogether visceral experience of looking at weavings that are not cloth.
*update: I highly recommend Tyler Green’s “Modern Art Notes” podcast with Mark Bradford, in which they discuss “[t]he extent to which his work has been received through his biography — or at least through one particular part of his biography.”
Note: the exhibition Mark Bradford continues across the street from SFMOMA at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The work pictured here is on view at SFMOMA February 18 through June 17, 2012. The exhibition at YBCA runs from February 18 through May 27, 2012.