The memory of my first encounter with Mark Bradford is eternally fused with the discombobulating experience of the Tijuana–San Diego border crossing: a frenzied and contradictory scene of unofficial commerce and intimidating border police, aurally aggravated by the hot, slow throbbing of many stationary cars. While United States officials aggressively carried out their futile attempt to control the flow of goods, drugs, and people from south to north and peddlers went from car to car selling drinks and tourist kitsch, I searched on foot for what might look like an art project for the outdoor exhibition “inSite: Art Practices in the Public Domain” (2005).
Located over to one side of this melee, I discovered Bradford, who had established his project adjacent to the taxi stand and bus depot. It was the result of a year’s work with the maleteros—the unauthorized porters of the border crossing, who ferry goods, people, and gifts from Mexico to the United States and vice versa. Bradford’s project was signposted best by the artist himself, who, at close to seven feet tall, is pretty hard to miss even in the midst of such distraction. Bradford’s immediate recognizability no doubt helped to facilitate his “inSite” work for which he had established himself as a kind of hybrid manager/designer/human resources department/branding executive for the maleteros, who thus far had worked as solo operators in an informal economy. Bradford had set out to improve the working conditions of the maleteros, using the stipend for his commission to buy new shopping trolleys and buckets, bungee cords and wheelchairs (all used for moving things and people across the border) as well as to create maps outlining optimum crossings and timing. Paying the workers five dollars for each new maletero they introduced him to, Bradford gradually established a network that made for a large-scale operation. Like a benign union representative, the artist organized and improved the structure of their working conditions with a temporary office set up adjacent to the taxi and bus stand functioning as the maleteros headquarters. In its totality, the project fell somewhere between social work and choreography, with the new brightly colored trolleys and transport gear creating a visible layer of activity and movement over the already existing patterns of human and vehicular travel north
I begin this piece with a description of Bradford’s work with the maleteros not only because it was my first encounter with the artist in person—and an important precursor for the “ark” he later built for New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina—but additionally because the Tijuana project stands squarely at the heart of his practice as a “painter”: a term that has never quite seemed appropriate for an artist so invested in people, places, and time. Bradford’s two-dimensional work—if we can even call it that, given the layered and raised surfaces of his canvases—is similarly engaged with a post-Fordist economy of changeable, unstable labor and could justifiably be seen as a form of history painting that documents, akin to a material anthropologist, the labor conditions and tendencies of the later twentieth- and twenty-first-century migrant-reliant economy. Like any important artist of his time, Bradford sets out to represent and reflect on the conditions of the moment, making images and objects that better represent the era than any documentary photography. But, fairly unusual for the present time, Bradford uses painting not simply for its representational capacity to allude to economically and historically significant aspects of our age but to materially manifest the labor and matter of twenty-first-century life. As Bradford himself has said about his approach to painting, “The most important imperative to be questioned is the one that tells you to go to the art supply store to be a painter.”1 To view Bradford’s work only in the context of painterly production is to potentially whitewash its origins, while to think of Bradford as a maker of beautiful pictures separated from this integral aspect of his practice is to deny the historical significance of his work.
Articulating his thoughts on how his works relate to historical representation, and speaking in particular of the work Black Wall Street, 2006, Bradford has said, “I wanted to take an actual moment in history and then abstract it and pull it apart and then put it back together again. The painting is like a puzzle.”2 This work and others, such as Scorched Earth, 2006, took inspiration (if one can say that) from the 1921 decimation of a successful African-American business district in Tulsa, Oklahoma—an event that has still never been fully investigated. Race riots, possibly initiated by the Ku Klux Klan, led to the intervention of the US military, who are suspected of dropping incendiary bombs onto the black neighborhood of Greenwood, resulting in hundreds of casualties and leaving an estimated ten thousand homeless. Bradford’s work is not a representation of the past, however, but rather a contemporary reflection, which he feels necessary given the tendency to obscure internal conflict in the United States—which on this occasion even included the unprecedented use of the military against its own citizens— and to instead situate violence and struggle firmly outside the country (as a problem faced, for example, by the Middle East).
Black Wall Street and Scorched Earth are characterized by blackened surfaces, partially erased street plans, and the typically layered and scraped surfaces of Bradford’s work. These two paintings, and in fact much of Bradford’s work, seem to literally mimic the labor and inherent physical stress that are alluded to in its subject matter, as even cursory observation makes apparent the application of layered materials, décollage, caulking, and sanding that have gone into each one of his often large-scale works. The resulting surfaces are reminiscent of the accidental markings of the street, itself the result of a process of addition and erasure: dirtied, worn down, bleached, and rinsed in an endlessly repeated cycle of human, industrial, and natural attrition. Although similarities may exist with the affichiste work of French artists Raymond Hains and Jacques Villeglé from the 1950s and ’60s, which is characterized by the stripped vestiges of advertising posters, Bradford’s work departs insofar as his surfaces are not only reminiscent of the vertical mediatized walls of commerce but also resemble the horizontality of the ground on which we walk, wait, queue, and, in some cases, sleep. Meanwhile, his choice of advertising is many miles from the billboards used for the latest blockbuster: His chosen materials are scavenged from his Leimert Park, Los Angeles, neighborhood. Prominent in many of Bradford’s works are the advertising flyers that he has termed “merchant posters”—the cheaply produced sheets made to attract low-income workers that are posted illegally on wire fencing around abandoned lots (many of which have remained unoccupied since the devastation of the 1992 Los Angeles riots). These flyers are made for those who are on the same eye level, walking the streets and taking public transportation, an anomaly for Los Angeles drive-by culture. Like a contemporary Kurt Schwitters, who trawled the streets searching for the right subway tickets, commercial flyers, and the like, pasting them enigmatically into his Merz works (the title of which came from the cut-up advertisement for the Kommerz- und Privatbank), Bradford uses the repetitive language, texture, and colors of contemporary commercial life, layered like organic sediment to represent the shifts in the lives of the urban poor.
Bradford has observed that the merchant posters increase in volume as the economy declines, giving his chosen material a direct correlation to the state of the nation. The language or advertising contained within them, which the artist leaves only barely legible in some cases and in others numbingly repeated, indicates the type of vulnerabilities faced by those to whom they are designed to appeal. Pest control, money wires, cheap divorce, credit lines, and prison phone services—Bradford linguistically captures the abjection of poverty and the subtle changes in undocumented labor as reflected in the paper flyers. For the work May Heaven Preserve You from Dangers and Assassins, 2010, Bradford takes the already insistent tone of the flyer that states bugs and, through Warholian repetition, obliterates, exaggerates, and reinvests its simple commercial language, suggesting a delirious infestation. Bradford traces the letters on the poster affixed to the canvas by hand, using string that is then papered over. Later the string is pulled out, leaving a semi-relief surface, and a peculiar negative effect is created. The somewhat ruined text has a wobbly, corrupted, and handmade look, and the endless repetition suggests a child’s textbook or handwriting exercise.
Bradford’s most ambitious project—his “Merzbau,” so to speak—is a twenty-two-foot-high, sixty-four-foot-long ark that sits landlocked. Constructed around two shipping containers, the surface is made from scavenged, cheap plywood used to board up disused buildings in his neighborhood. The boards themselves have become ready-made Bradford-esque works over time, caked and layered in advertising flyers and cheap paint. First built on an empty lot in Los Angeles, then packed up inside containers, shipped to New Orleans, and rebuilt in the Lower Ninth Ward, Bradford’s Mithra, 2008, is named after the Zoroastrian judicial figure, an all-seeing protector of truth. Here as elsewhere Bradford plays poignantly with the notion of the ruin: The ruin is based neither fully in the past nor the present; ruins hold mortality at bay, like a form of arrested death, and are suggestive of a possible mutability. At once alluding to a contemporary crisis and an extraordinary negation of responsibility, Bradford’s work uses the timelessness of the ruin to draw a devastating parallel with the history of such neglect and denial. The urban ruin becomes the most fitting monument to our contemporary condition, and while within the ruin there is the potential for restoration, Bradford’s works are a bleak material testimony to our increasingly economically divisive times.