San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
8 February through 17 June 2012
Mark Bradford wants to overwhelm us. At least that is what it feels like, walking through the rooms of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) dedicated to his ten-year retrospective. The canvases keep getting bigger and the patterns louder, more determined, and more confident in speaking their truth. It is the sort of exhibition that sends you scurrying for the leaflet, as there is a message here, the artist has something he wants to say. While it is entirely possible to walk through the 50-something piece show, which spans beyond the SFMOMA to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts across the street, and just take in the expansiveness of it all, it would only be half the story.
Los Angeles-based Bradford brings a lot of his environment into his art. Working extensively with found objects, such as posters, billboards, maps, fliers, comics and magazines, the grit of the street translates excellently into the clean gallery space. Displayed chronologically, the first works are made from curling papers from his mother’s hair salon in South Central Los Angeles, resulting in beautifully textured and monochrome-ish canvases deeply rooted in what was going on around the young artist at the time. The style has since changed, but the connection to the surrounding world been maintained.
It is strangely difficult to describe Bradford’s work, though. ‘Juice’ from 2003 is made from mostly white squares, interspersed with black; ‘Strawberry’ from 2002 has white squares scattered over cheerful orange. But this tells you nothing about the works unless you see them, and unless you take your time in doing so, even that may not be enough. Sitting in front of one of Bradford’s pieces, especially the largest ones, gives you an idea of the work that has gone into it, with the pasting, scraping and painting, the sticky substances coating the artist’s hands at the end of the day. There is intensive labour behind these efforts to translate a world onto canvas. More than anything, Bradford’s works look like maps: of places, of feelings, of the troubles with the human condition. The effect is overwhelming, especially as the colours turn rich and dark, as the patterns grow harder to trace towards an intensity just on the right side of painful.
The massive ‘Black Venus’ from 2005 is compiled by smaller fragments in black and blue, cut into strips; there is an order to the chaos but it slips away from you. ‘Potable Water’ from 2005 is fraying, buckling off the wall. The blue streaks presumably represents water, and a look at the label reveals the work is a comment on California’s water issues throughout history. Several of the works carries references to social and political issues, along with a rich vein of pop culture. ‘Mississippi Gottam’ from 2007 concerns the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina: silvery white, clay-like colours, patterned, etched, light playing on the surface like light on rippling water. “I am always looking for ways to activate a new kind of reality,” Bradford has said. “It is a very physical thing for me, more than an intellectual pursuit.” This comes across perhaps more than ever with ‘Mithra’, the life-size ark made from plywood and pasted papers, which Bradford displayed in New Orleans in a reference of the biblical levels of flooding and the government’s failure to protect the city’s inhabitants. The section on display is only a fraction of the whole, but gives an impression of how staggering the piece must have been in its entirety.
The exhibition includes a few of Bradford’s sound and video works as well, including ‘Pinocchio is on Fire’, where visitors are invited to lie down on bean bags in a room full of patterns and music. The experience is powerful, both visually and audibly, but Bradford does not need multimedia to do this; he manages just fine with just his canvases. Take ‘You’re nobody (til somebody kills you)’, where the cacophony comes together to a perfect hum, sort of like magic, as you sit still in front of the sprawling canvas. I kept tracing the patterns with my eyes, completely unable to describe what I was seeing, but something was happening. Almost like a 3D picture where you have to look at it before something pops out at you, the image felt alive; it seemed to hint at something bigger, like when you are looking a map of a city you know well. There is an energy in Bradford’s works, something that transcends the sum of their parts. I found myself reluctant to leave.