There's imperfect black tape and black plastic covering the doors to the Hammer Museum's video gallery right now, and a sign saying no one under 21 can enter to see Mark Bradford's Spiderman. Inside, the gallery is all black too, and so is the screen, though white typed text scrolls across the screen's bottom. It's the script for the stand-up routine Bradford is performing invisibly, his smooth voice mimicking a club comedian's rhythms and timing while a recorded audience laughs on cue. The actual audience in the Hammer's gallery doesn't laugh as much, however. The things Bradford says are funny, but in a more oblique, absurdist way.
Bradford, having his first L.A. museum show (he's had major museum shows elsewhere), made the new, 5-minute-long Spiderman in response to Eddie Murphy's crass 1983 concert film Delirious, which played on and played up stereotypes of black machismo. Onstage in a red leather jumpsuit, Murphy says he has to keep moving so the “faggots” don't stare at his ass.
In his routine, Bradford describes a big, macho man in 1980s Compton so afraid of contracting HIV that he stuffs birth control pills up his ass. At one point Michael Jackson's ghost threatens to send down his monkey, Bubbles, to get back at Bradford for making fun of MJ's wig. Bradford describes Bubbles sitting on him: “Bubbles is fat. … I can't breathe. Bubbles, for real … I can't breeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeathe.” The picture this conjures — of tall, elegant Bradford being squished by a monkey — is ridiculous. The reference to Eric Garner, the black man who died recently after telling the NYPD officers arresting him he really couldn't breathe, is pretty dark.
Some darkness reappears, albeit in a much more formal, inexplicit way, in two galleries across the courtyard, where the bulk of Bradford's show, called “Scorched Earth,” continues. His 10 abstractions look lyrical and composed from far away, but up close, parts resemble urban grime or the oozy flesh beneath scabs. These, like much of Bradford's work, are mostly made from discarded paper fliers and scraps of billboards collected in South L.A. The paper is layered, sanded and painted until the surface becomes the artist's own worked-over, composed terrain of texture and color.
Early in Bradford's career, his paintings evidenced more of a personal touch. Now they have the planned polish of paintings made by an artist who has mastered his material and has assistants on staff. All work in this show was made this year, and wall labels read “courtesy of Hauser & Wirth,” the blue-chip gallery Bradford joined in 2013. This can make a viewer in the know feel a bit uncomfortable, when a museum shows brand-new work by an artist whose career is going quite well — a Bradford painting just sold at auction for $4 million, and in January he received the National Medal of the Arts from the State Department — because it doesn't seem so different from a commercial gallery show that might sell out immediately, and museums are ideally places where you can experience artwork outside the frame of market value.
Still, this show gives an interesting glimpse into how Bradford, who started his art career in the late 1990s and continued cutting hair in his mother's Leimert Park salon until the early 2000s, has outstripped the origin stories often pinned on him. At least, it's begun to seem especially out-of-touch to let these narratives overshadow discussion of the savvy craftsmanship that makes the artist's best work gutturally appealing.
This show shares its title, “Scorched Earth,” with a large painting the artist made nine years ago. That painting responded to two charged events: the war in Iraq and a torching of a black neighborhood in Tulsa, Alabama, by white men in 1921. The painting looked like a gridded cityscape on fire, mostly black and red with a graphic, bold quality.
A fleshy fuchsia, instead of fiery red, appears in all but four paintings here, and the nodes of black that stick out because the paper around them has been sanded away look like stylized burns. So “scorched earth” starts to seem like a wide-open category, including the aftermath of the Rodney King riots Bradford witnessed in 1992 or someone dropping a cigarette on a back porch.
One work in the show is far more literal than the others, however: Rebuild South Central, which, according to the museum wall label, is based on a photograph Bradford took right after the 1992 riots of people holding up signs saying “Rebuild South Central Without Liquor Stores.” Also according to the wall label, since he co-founded Art+Practice, a nonprofit in South L.A. neighborhood Leimert Park in 2014, Bradford has been involved in an effort to close liquor stores, which “are seen as contributing to urban blight and vagrancy.”
Labels such as this, and the fact that so much press frames Bradford's work in terms of South Central roots, even though Bradford mainly grew up in Santa Monica (“They always leave that part out,” he told an interviewer in 2011), are what makes it so hard at times to respond to the work without also responding to representations of the artist's identity. A glowing Boston Globe review of an East Coast show last year talked about how “Bradford brings commercial street posters salvaged from South Central Los Angeles … into upscale galleries across the country,” suggesting the artist is an ambassador from South L.A. streets to the realm of high culture — an impossible role, since it's one that Bradford does mostly alone, as there's no one else with his art-world clout, and one that invites a narrow view of the neighborhood and of his art.
Bradford has talked over the years about his attraction to American abstract painting of the 1950s, and knowing that world had traditionally excluded all but white men. Taking discarded notices found on streets as his material was a way to defy the purity and exclusivity of the tradition while also participating. But it's really not the fact that he's doing this that brings about the best moments in this show or previous Bradford shows. It's his approach. Before recording the video Spiderman, Bradford honed the script, practiced getting the inflection right, keeping lightness in his voice even as he said piercing things. The layering and sanding process he uses in his wall work and the swoosh of marks he initially created by painting with a broom are his own practiced trademarks, methods for producing a breed of widely appealing beauty out of cast-off material.
The first work you see in the Hammer show is temporary, an installation above the entryway. A map of the United States with numbers in each state saying how many people per 100,000 have been diagnosed with HIV, it looks painted from a distance. Then you get close and see that Bradford has actually made each multicolored line and mark by sanding through the wall's white surface. He calls the piece Finding Barry, because San Francisco street artist Barry McGee was the first to do a painting on that wall in 1999. Many artists have painted it since, and Bradford's idea was to use those layers of the color they'd left behind as his own material. Up close, the sanded indentations are surprisingly controlled and pleasing, very much recognizable as Bradford's marks (there's a broomlike swoosh near the map's far end). That's what makes him consistently compelling: the way he works against the baggage of his context, at times literally sanding it away, so that his own personal, poetic sensibility wins out.
Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood; through Sept. 27. (310) 443-7000, hammer.ucla.edu
Correction: The original version of this article has the wrong name for the Eddie Murphy film Delirious. We regret the error.
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