Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford spoke with us on Nov. 16, 2010, at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art, where his solo survey runs from Nov. 19, 2010, to March 13, 2011. Below are excerpts from the interview.
“The reason I use paper is because paper is so unforgiving. It’s opaque. It doesn’t give it up. We view paint through an art historical context anyway. I can make paint do a certain thing and it theoretically looks sensual or it theoretically, if you add a little more linseed oil, it can glow. Well paper is just hard. You’ve really got to struggle with it to lift it. And sometimes it doesn’t. And it demands its physicality. And it has a different use. I knew that I was going to be a painter and I know that I could not use paint. Not because I have a problem with paint, but the ideas I was interested in, I just knew that couldn’t use paint to talk about them. And struggle with it [paper]. Sometimes it will just not give it up.”
“I just think I created a site of two things, a sort of relationship with Abstract Expressionism and a social vocabulary, and I just kind of created them both in a third space, and something happened in that third space. My work has so much social fabric underneath. It has a lot to do with social, economic, cultural, racial, the body, the social condition that we all meet and bounce around in. It doesn’t all belong to that tenet, and it doesn’t all belong to art history. It bounces between the two, or those two conditions that exist at the same time. Like the Michael Jackson song, ‘I never can say goodbye.’ I can’t paint and forget about the body. And I can’t simply talk about the social conditions because I’m interested in the history, the art history.”
“I know my relationship to being 6’8”, but when I step out of my house, it’s just incredible what 6’8” means to so many people.”
“When you put together a show of the work of the last 10 years, you really see about one or two points over and over again. It’s not like I’m this person that has thousands of ideas. People, we just circulate around one or two things. We all do that. I just have these two tenets: I actually want to engage a social political conversation about the contemporary world that I live in or my relationship to it, and at the same time I do want to abstract it. The only way I can kind of abstract it, or what’s comfortable for me, is to do it through sort of alchemical things, to work in abstraction.”
On his installation “HELP US” (pictured above), which featured the title painted atop Steve Turner Contemporary gallery in Los Angeles in 2008. It was seen by many as a response to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina: “I knew about the Hurricane Katrina thing and of course that was on one level. … But I was also kind of fascinated with this uber, uber market in the art world. Things were just tripling, and quadrupling, and it seemed like it was the art world on steroids. I just thought that something had to give. I think because I was an artist also navigating that space, I just felt that something was going to give, something was going to snap or break or crash or fall. This gallery asked me to do this work, yeah, it was partly this aerial view of looking down, this topography, but also I think internally I was struggling with trying to reconcile my own relationship to the market and reconcile my relationship to the art world is just on steroids. I said, ‘I don’t think this can really hold.’ And the housing market was on steroids. Everything was hyper, hyper. I just felt I’m not so sure. … It was New Orleans, but also at the same time it was on top of a small gallery. I always had these two tenants going on. But I always socially go to things that are very hot, because my history is very hot. I grew up in the ‘80s with the rise of AIDS, the rise of gangsta rap, the rise of crack cocaine, and the rise of the black faith church. Those were just really hot things. I was 18 years old right in 1980 and it was hot socially. So working in a hair salon I was sort of at ground zero with all that stuff socially. My mother was a hair stylist and I was a hair stylist. So for me socially the impact of that stuff was so great in the black community, and so personal, intimate for me. What I really understand now looking at the work, I think that it was too traumatic. I think that it was simply traumatic. I went to Europe for 10 years. I went to school. And just like with Abstract Expressionism, where many of them came from Europe after the war and they had to sort of deal with the trauma through abstraction, I think in some ways all the stuff I talk about socially was traumatizing for me. So I think I use the tenets of abstraction to actually point to things in the social condition. Like I can talk about the grid and propane, the infiniteness of the art historical grid where one place is no different than any other place and it multiplies, multiplies, multiplies. But if you take that piece and put it in the social and talk about what happened in New Orleans and what happened to individuals, it’s sad in a way. I guess it’s sad, but it’s necessary for me.”
“But I’m not a downer, I’m not a depressed person, but I don’t mind taking on hard issues. I’m comfortable putting that on the tale as well.”
On his 2005 video “Niagara,” which depicts a black man sashaying down a littered L.A. street: “When people understand or talk about Los Angeles, and if they particularly talk about South Central, unfortunately South Central through popular culture, the gaze has been so narrowed of what it means to people: hip hop. And then hip-hop conjures up all these imagery of a very particular type of masculinity, a very particular type of woman, a very particular type of community. It’s Snoop, and it’s a hyper, hyper aggressive angry female. When I grew up in the ‘70s, we never had a word like ‘Oh, she’s ghetto.’ I never even heard that word, that identifying pointing to her as other, to him as other. So I’m always interested in spaces that point to other conversations. And Melvin, he walks in front of my studio every day and I was just so fascinated by how he owns this public space, how he’s not afraid, how he is in his own subjectivity and how he is negotiating. But also he seems very vulnerable to me because the threat of violence is very, very present. So I just asked him could just put a camera right when he walked by. But at the same time I kind of wanted to protect him too. Or say, ‘Do you know where you’re walking?’ [He’d say] ‘Of course I know where I’m walking.’ And he would walk sometimes with a baseball bat. He had good cause. So I thought that how can you be black, be an artist, have your studio in South Central, and talk about abstraction? Like is it even possible when it’s so heavily figurative, heavily figurative? I can go to China and say so my studio’s in South Central, ‘Oh, South Central.’ Everybody has an idea of what South Central is. But it’s so romantic, and it’s been so hyper, hyper, hyper historicized in a particular way. So I thought, you know, the best way I can do it is just work through abstraction. But the social stuff is still there.”
“I don’t believe that abstraction just belongs to this art historical sublime, transcendence, a way of expressing some raw animal thing. No, I actually am just the opposite. I’m actually using abstraction to actually talk about social conditions, but using abstraction, the tenets, the tools of it. I don’t really believe in the sublime of abstraction. That’s why I use paper actually. I don’t believe in this esoteric sublime because if you keep pushing that thought back it goes to this godlike figure. And if you keep pushing it back, just keep going, keep going, what’s that god figure look like? It’s usually some big patriarchal dude sitting on a … no I’m not going there.” It’s also white. “It’s not a woman. So I just kind of stay out of that whole thing. The big truths I tend to kind of steer away from because I know where that conversation is going.”
“I’m trying to wrench the idea of the sublime out of this thing that has been part of modernity and say a sublime here, a very grounded sublime, a sublime that when you put bodies together something happens when people are together there is an energy that happens. That type of sublime or connection or relationship I’m fine with, but when it starts to go to the tenets of greatness, the hand of God, because you know I’ve got to be real careful with that stuff. I have an alternative lifestyle so if you bring that stuff into the conversation I already know where it’s going to go. I know it’s going to turn on me. I know where it’s all going, so I just try to stay out of that whole thing. I just ground it in my relationships.”
Photos of Bradford by The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research.