Mark Bradford

Mark Bradford, Los Moscos, 2004

Mark Bradford, Los Moscos, 2004

Best known as the creator of large-scale images involving the collage of mixed materials, Mark Bradford’s (b.1961, Los Angeles) practice also encompasses printmaking, photography, video, installation, performance – and time spent as an ‘operative’ in his mother’s beauty salon.

The formal aesthetic quality of his abstract compositions has led to his work being recuperated by critics to ‘Abstract Expressionism’, and drawn comparisons with Agnes Martin and Piet Mondrian. But the fact that he is an African-American who makes his images using ‘pop’ materials sourced from his local Los Angeles environment allows his art a rich set of meanings in a strictly contemporary context.

These materials famously include the singed endpapers from dyeing hair (‘perming’), used like gold leaf, along with scraps from billboards and street signs sourced from various cultures and ethnicities. Their presence allows us to project our own urban myths into the abstract compositions. Writers tend to use oxymorons to describe them: informal formalism, raw elegance, intricate boldness: both emotional and restrained.

Collage is the natural technique for bringing disparate objects and ideas into juxtaposition, in the way that many cultures co-exist in the streets of Bradford’s neighbourhood, South Central Los Angeles. Diversity, the hybridisation that results from co-habitation, is his subject, rather than any putative homogenised African-American experience.

For Bradford, collage – with its seemingly chaotic juxtapositions, its many layers and fragments, its patterns and dislocations – is the artform that comes closest to the actual experience of city life. His collages seethe with life and colour, just as their textures and built-up layers echo the contours of a city. They are incredibly detailed, yet when we step back and look at the whole, we see a beautiful overall shape and pattern – like the aerial view of a city at night. Bradfords collage for International 06 entitled Los Moscos (2006) highlighted the contrast between the glamorous facade of the Los Angeles entertainment industry and the very different world of the city’s migrant workers.

Bradford’s collages are often compared to Modernist abstract painting. Yet his is an abstraction that comes more from the urban sprawl of his native Los Angeles than from art history: ‘there is an abstraction that happens in the city... a dislocation of reality when you have the Mexican taqueria next to the black wig shop across the street from the Korean nail shop’.

Los Moscos (2006) examined the structures of a city, its histories, cultures and economic systems. (The title translates as ‘the flies’, a derogatory term applied to migrant labourers in the San Francisco Bay area.) Composed from the signage of South Central LA, an area colonised by the entertainment industry, the work consisted of hundreds of fragments of torn printed paper – posters, flyers, packaging – found by the artist in the streets surrounding his studio. Words and phrases appear and disappear throughout the picture surface, capturing the area’s cultural and historical multiplicity.

The generic form of the city – the entire collage resembled an aerial view or map – contrasts with the intricacy of the work’s composite parts. Bradford recorded the iconography of a city in the micro and the macro. The work may be highly specific in origin, yet the histories and identities it conveyed have universal resonance.

Mark Bradford at Liverpool Biennial 2006

Los Moscos, 2004
Mixed Media Collage on Canvas
exhibited at Tate Liverpool

Supported by

lent by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery
courtesy of the American Acquisitions Committee 2006