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Mark Bradford Exhibit at the ICA: My Take

02/23/2011

I am often guilty of placing art into a narrow department of paint on canvas or sculpture. Mark Bradford doesn’t fall into either of those categories, and during my initial trip around the ICA’s West Gallery, his use of everyday items from hair dresser’s paper to billboard scraps layered onto plywood or canvas, allowed for ample time and examination. It wasn’t until I made my way to Niagara, a video, that the entire collection suddenly gained a reciprocal association.  It’s not only Bradford’s use of found, urban items, it was that so much of it was discarded, forgotten or not wanted. In Niagara, the subject Melvin may be go against the social grain, but if he does, he’s blissfully unaware or better still, he doesn’t care. The lasting image of Melvin flouncing down the dirty street contains the signature Bradford code, and the rest of his urban matrix became easier to unravel because of it.

Bradford’s use of many different textures and tools makes for unique work. In comparing Bradford to an avant-garde legend of Gustave Courbet’s stature, I would caution gallery-goers in making that association. Bradford’s vision is a progressive one to be sure, but it is rooted in common themes of sexuality, race, and urbanism. His is a commentary that isn’t necessarily new, but his execution is impeccable. On the surface, his work may not seem overtly political, but it is. Niagara was shot on a street in South Central Los Angeles, formerly the site of his mother’s hair salon, now his studio. South Central is a melting pot, but one ridden with bullet holes. Known most widely for its gangs and violence, many will never be able to shake the correlation between the neighborhood and the Watts Riot of 1965 or the myriad gang-based movies that achieved extraordinary popularity in the 1990’s. Melvin, dressed in bright yellow shorts and a skimpy white tank-top, might be a homosexual, but we aren’t sure. It doesn’t matter. His appearance is one that would gain attention in any neighborhood where toughness is the street code. Rather than subscribe to that doctrine, Melvin has his own drummer, and boy is he marching to him. His hands sway back-and-forth, like decorations at the end of his long, lanky arms. I couldn’t help but think of Matthew Wilder’s cheesy pop classic “Break My Stride.” Consider the lyrics; “Ain’t nothin’ gonna break my stride/Nobody’s gonna slow me down, oh-no/I’ve got to keep on movin’.” The song could almost be ironically played as a bed to the video. There is literally so much shit around him, and he’s flying, beautiful and triumphant for seemingly no reason at all. To his left is a half-full or half-empty forty ounce bottle of malt liquor, abandoned for something better or something worse, but we don’t know. Empty cups and lonely posters are hanging on for dear life, blowing around in the wind without really going anywhere, not unlike their human neighbors. The sidewalk is slightly pitched down, but that’s not where Melvin is headed. This is a guy who’s walking downhill because he has momentum. The wheat-pasted fliers don’t disappoint either. A fluorescent yellow one on top says Five-Star, while the equally neon orange one beneath it partially conceals the remainder of the message. The loads of chain-link fencing suggest prohibition and protection at the same time, only no one is around to be the beneficiary or the forbidden. The only other life is signaled by a slow moving van that takes a left turn. How convenient, maybe we all should move a bit to the left. The piece’s crescendo comes when Melvin comes across a small pile of actual dirt. It’s not man made, just true earth. He leaps over the dirt with such grace; it nearly drove me to tears. With so much suck around him, Melvin soars.

If there’s an indelible significance, it’s the value of truth in self. Sure the piece is political, but even politics are based on people. So much of life is spent trying to find ourselves. Social mores, media, and advertising are constantly trying to push us in predetermined directions. Melvin has determined his direction, and more of us could follow his lead. It’s as grassroots approach as there is, and I get the feeling that if more people were like Melvin, the world would be better for it.

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