Interview with Mark Bradford: “It’s a complex conversation and there’s no closure”

The artist on class and identity in South Central LA, working with children and making art in post-Katrina New Orleans


Standing 6ft 8in tall, the elegant and engaging Los Angeles-based artist Mark Bradford cuts a striking figure. His mural-sized abstract collages and installations are assembled from signage, advertisements and posters which he layers with paint, twine, and glue, and then repeatedly sands down. An LA native, his installations, sculptures and videos both celebrate and critique the communities of South Central Los Angeles. In 2009 the 49-year-old artist won the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, propelling his career to greater heights. A major 10-year survey of his work debuts this month at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio before embarking on a four-city national tour.

The Art Newspaper: Your early paintings incorporate supplies from your mother’s hair salon like hair dyes and permanent-wave end papers. Why did you move away from this subject matter?

Mark Bradford: My early works used socially loaded material but I was always interested in abstract painting. So my first gesture was to combine the two. Later I learned that I didn’t have to combine them on the same pictorial surface.

TAN: Can you describe your working process?

MB: I use secondary advertising and found printed matter from the streets, things that have some use value. I am drawn to ways of working that are very tactile with a certain physicality. I tend to obliterate the canvas with paper so it becomes opaque, almost like a wall, and then I begin to build. Between the first layer and the final surface layer of paper is where all the action happens.

TAN: Is it true that you and your assistants wear uniforms, placing official-looking plastic cones on the ground before you take down paper signage from fencing and plywood construction boards in your neighbourhood?

MB: It’s quasi-illegal for these advertising companies to paste the posters on the plywood barricades, and its quasi-illegal for me to take them down, so my actions exist in a real grey area. Once a year, city services come and take the advertising down. I appropriate the role of a city worker and I perform their job for them, and this way I don’t have any problems. I have gone to multi-million dollar buildings during the middle of the day and they assume that I’m on a certain side of the law.

TAN: You entered the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) in 1991 at the age of 30. What were you doing before you entered school?

MB: I was working at a hair salon, travelling to places like Europe, Africa and Mexico, and going to clubs and dancing. I didn’t know that at 30 I’d be sitting with 18-year-olds straight out of high school. That was an adjustment.

TAN: Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?

MB: I didn’t come from an art background. Being an artist was really a class thing and it wasn’t a conversation we had in my house. We were self-employed, working-class people and although we were very dynamic and creative we were geared toward making a living.

TAN: You have mentioned that at CalArts you were immersed in art theory, but what part of your experience had the most practical and meaningful impact on your career?

MB: When I was growing up I didn’t know anything outside of the mainstream. So when I got to CalArts, I learned that there were liberal, alternative and non-traditional ways of thinking which was really new for me.

Don’t forget I was going back and forth every day from traditional black America. I could relate to Foucault’s ideas about how one’s subjectivity moves through territory. It meant that I could go to the hair salon and back to CalArts as one whole person and not compartmentalise my being.

TAN: Your mother owned a beauty salon and you come from several generations of self-sufficient merchants. Can you talk a bit about why you collect and use posters in your work?

MB: I only collect posters that represent self-run businesses. These posters are about fringe economies and I’m always fascinated by things that fall between the cracks of the middle-class. The middle class shuffles along, but the lower and the higher classes are dynamic—both are irreverent and are risk-takers.

TAN: You seem to bury cultural ideas and documents under layers of abstraction that the viewer can never see.

MB: I think that the idea of accretion or accumulation is no different than modern day Rome, where archaeologists have found layers of ancient cities. In my work, often the viewer can only see the top layer which is not translucent, but the weight and the energy of what’s underneath there will pulsate.

TAN: Your video Niagara (2005) portrays an African American male wearing shorts and a tank top sashaying down the street in South Central Los Angeles. Can a person be openly gay on the streets of South Central LA?

MB: It’s complicated but no. He was performing the gesture with his body on one of the main thoroughfares of the black community and one of the toughest streets in the neighbourhood. That space was inscribed with a very particular power dynamic and it made me think about the fragility of the body in public space. The only other time I would see this type of fragility is when I would see a young boy in the wrong part of the community wearing the wrong colours and then you would see his vulnerability and desperation because he was trying to get to a place where he wouldn’t be harmed.

TAN: Would you say your work is both a celebration and a critique of the dynamics of community?

MB: Absolutely—it’s not some romanticised view of community. It’s a very complex conversation and there is no closure. I think the conversation is what’s interesting.

TAN: In your video Practice (2003) you are dressed in an antebellum hoop-skirt stitched together from Los Angeles Lakers’ basketball team uniforms. As a 6ft 8in African American man, one would think that you have to dispel several stereotypes.

MB: I have no public privacy. I’ve always been vulnerable in public space; because of my size people feel like they can step into my private world at any moment and ask me how tall I am.

People say that I look like a player but what does that mean? Basketball is religion and the high priests are the players. When you tell people you don’t play, they say what a waste, like it’s almost a sin against the body that I was born in.

TAN: Do you feel that you or your work has also been stereotyped or misrepresented in some way?

MB: I think that with artists of colour, often people are looking for the real story connected to the image. Here’s the funny thing: in the art world I was first described as the black hairdresser from South Central, then I became urban black from South Central, but now I’m a 2009 MacArthur winner—that’s my new moniker. It’s another type of branding.

TAN: One of the most celebrated and poignant pieces at the 2008 New Orleans Biennial Prospect. 1 was your sculpture Mithra (2008)—a monumental 70ft-long ark built on site in the devastated Lower Ninth Ward. How was your interest in community and history realised in New Orleans?

MB: It wasn’t my community; I was definitely an outsider. I was a biennial artist and I never tried to be “we the people”. My actual father, who I’ve never met, is from New Orleans, and people kept trying to make a connection between me and the city. But I don’t feel any special connection because of my DNA. By being engaged and open I built some interesting relationships that I still have with Keith [Calhoun] and Chandra [McCormick] of the non-profit art centre L9. They really embraced the work. I went from door to door to introduce myself. My people skills come from working at a hair salon. My mother used to always say nobody wants to feel overlooked.

TAN: In 2008 you painted the words “HELP US” on the rooftop of an LA gallery. The work conjures up images of stranded survivors during Hurricane Katrina. What is this work about?

MB: I painted the words on the roof of a building across the street from a new wing at Los Angeles County Museum of Art from where viewers could look down onto it. At that time I was thinking something doesn’t feel right about the art world. It just didn’t feel right to me that people were kicking down doors at art fairs and buying everything, and I thought something was going to break.

TAN: Does the art world feel better now?

MB: I don’t know that it feels better, but at least artists are not being so blindly led. We’re becoming more independent, and we are more involved in our careers. The commercial space of the gallery is just one thing that we do, but it’s not everything that we do.

I just finished a project for the Getty called “Open Studio” where I invited artists like Carrie Mae Weems, Catherine Opie, Kerry James Marshall and Michael Joo to create lesson plans that teachers can download for children in grades kindergarten through 12. I’m working more and more with kids, and I’m interested in how we move art education away from craft projects with macaroni and glitter to a conversation about the world that they live in.

TAN: Can you talk about your latest commissioned installation Pinocchio Is on Fire, which looks at South Central Los Angeles from the 1980s to the present?

MB: Pinocchio Is on Fire is a mythological character that I created to talk about black culture in South LA at a time of flux and fluidity in the late 1980s when it was changing from an older narrative of family toward a “Boyz in the Hood” hip hop moment. And now the ground is shaking again, hip hop is receding and immigration has changed the landscape. The work is a sound piece using my voice and music. It came very naturally to me.