Mark Bradford at the Hammer and Miriam Schapiro's Legacy

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Mark Bradford was conducting a group of writers and critics through his new exhibition at the Hammer Museum on the morning after the shootings in Charleston. The black artist, who is usually upbeat when interviewed, seemed exasperated, frustrated by the thought that crossed the minds of so many. How could this still be happening, so much mindless violence, even after so much consciousness raising, so much media attention, so much legislation. (Though not against gun control.) Bradford, 53, is not one to dwell on such darkness but his work is concerned consistently with issues of vulnerability, mortality, glorious and tragic episodes in the inevitable passage of time.

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Mark Bradford, "Sample 3," 2015
Mixed media on canvas; 62 x 48 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Scorched Earth, now at the Hammer Museum, begins with a huge map of the United States laboriously etched out of the very plaster of the grand white wall along the white marble entrance stairs to the galleries. Bradford used a planer to file through the surface and reveal layers of color from the 29 previous projects painted onto that wall, remembering literally the history of imagery going back to the first wall painting done by his friend Barry Magee, which is why the piece is titled Finding Barry.

Within the borders of each state, are statistics of how many people have AIDS per 100,000 people as of 2009. He chose the older statistic as a way of establishing distance and embedding the notion of passing time. It was the rise of AIDS, and a fear of it, along with an active social life at the clubs, that drove him to leave L.A. and start traveling in Europe in the 1990's, using savings from his work in his mother's Leimert Park hair salon. He matured, focused and when he returned to LA, he started taking art classes, got into CalArts, got scholarships, and settled down to some serious work. And work is a big topic for Bradford, who stands six foot, seven inches, and bristles with energy. His mantra is work.

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Mark Bradford, "Untitled," 2015
Mixed media on canvas; 144 x 144 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Bradford's pictures are quite literally worked, with layers of papers and paint that he abrades and cuts and sands. The newest pieces are deceptively attractive patterns of stars and dots and lines, some black, some red, in pale surfaces. But they come from his studies of cells seen through a microscope before and after HIV. The recent Ebola epidemic in Africa, and all the media-driven fear mongering, reminded him of the early years of AIDS diagnoses, when so little was understood. It also inspired him to recall the cutting comedy of that period, especially Eddie Murphy's Delirious. He responded in this show with a monologue of his own, presented in white type on a black screen in the darkened gallery. There is no visual presence, just his voice speaking the words to a laugh track and a musical score lifted from the Murphy era. It is titled Spiderman.

Bradford's ongoing concern with process led him to work on giant sheets of inky black paper that he soaked in water, then put out in the sun, creasing, abrading and fading sections as they dried. The shadowy abstract patterns resemble ranges of dark mountains like the Chinese ink paintings that inspired him. They are similarly unframed, hanging softly against the wall.

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Mark Bradford, "Rebuild South Central," 2015
Mixed media on canvas; 42 x 96 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Hammer curator Connie Butler selected these three new series, a decision that allows the work to breathe and have presence. An admittedly small exhibition though Bradford has shown previously at the Hammer and the museum was an early supporter of the work. Bradford's decision to establish Art + Practice, a provider of gallery and social services in his neighborhood of Leimert Park, was made in conjunction with the Hammer. The catalogue for this exhibition is largely a compilation of politically oriented texts on issues of feminism, race, and gay rights, all areas of absolute interest to Bradford. But they are not what makes his art so endlessly compelling. It is his ability as a visual artist to make work that mysteriously seduces, work as intriguing and indirect in its way as that of Jackson Pollock. While there are significant and timely political themes woven quite literally into his work, it is the poetry of experience that lingers. The show continues through September 27.

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Miriam Schapiro and Sherry Brody, "Dollhouse," 1972
Wood and mixed media; 79 3/4 x 82 x 8 1/2 inches
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Photo: Cliff

Bradford has spoken of the influence of Feminism by his instructors at CalArts, where he got both his BFA and MFA in the 1990's. Miriam (known as Mimi) Schapiro, the artist who helped establish the Feminist Art Program there in the early 1970's, as well as the barrier-shattering LA installation Womanhouse, passed away on June 20. Her use of pattern and decoration and collage (or "femmage," as she called it) expanded her early hard-edge abstract paintings into a different realm that still echoes with its influence. In the complex use of textiles and patterns in her own art, you might think of connections to Bradford. In her personal support for the ideas and talents of artists working outside of the mainstream, you would also think of Bradford.

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Meg Cranston, "Afghan Spectrum," 2014
Handspun Afghan wool. 96 ½ x 72 4/5 inches
Hammer Museum, Los Angeles
Photo: Randall Harrington & Patrick Bolton

You can also see it in a small show of carpets designed by some top women artists that were woven by women in Afghanistan as part of a project, under the auspices of designer Christopher Farr, to reinvigorate that industry. (As limited edition works of art for $9500, they are worth more than a serious look by collectors.) So Schapiro’s legacy is considerable in so many ways. Farewell to one of the big spirits.