Mark Bradford Digs into the Hammer's Walls and into Our Minds

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Every time one goes to the Hammer Museum, there is a surprise waiting in the lobby. There, on the wall above the staircase, one finds temporary monumental installations that vary from murals to sculptural constructions. The current project occupying the museum lobby is a gigantic map of the USA, with mysterious numbers assigned to each state. So, what’s that all about?

One of the best-known Los Angeles artists, Mark Bradford, had been working on this map with several assistants for a few weeks. The first impression one gets is that it’s painted on the wall, but when you come close, you see that this map has been literally dug into the wall with some instrument, similar to the way archaeologists dig into the earth to uncover an ancient settlement.

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(T) Mark Bradford, "Finding Barry," 2015
(B) Detail

For over a decade before Mark Bradford started this project, 29 different artists had made their mark on this very wall. At the end of each exhibition, the wall would be white-washed, and another work by another artist would be created. With this buried history in mind, Bradford approached his task of creating a huge mural not by painting on the wall, but by digging into it, thus, revealing the layers hidden beneath the white surface.

The title of the mural, Finding Barry, is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Barry McGee, one of the first artists to create a lobby installation for the Hammer in 2000. But, along with this light touch, there is also a serious and profound meaning to this latest mural. Such a combination of lightness and seriousness has been a trademark of Bradford’s for a long time. Indeed, each number attached to each state represents "the number of adolescents and adults out of every 100,000 people who were diagnosed with AIDS at the end of 2009." (LA Times, 6/21/15)

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Mark Bradford, "Sample 3," 2015

Last Saturday, The Hammer Museum not only unveiled this mural, but also Mark Bradford’s first solo exhibition in Los Angeles. It is titled Scorched Earth, and it consists of 12 large mixed-media paintings, which also can be described as collages.

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(T) Installtion view of "Scorched Earth"
(B) Detail of Mark Bradford's "Sample 3," 2015

Each is made of many layers of different-colored paper glued to each other. If you stick your nose close the surface of these paintings, the impression is that you are looking through a microscope at human cells.

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Installation view

There are several large paintings, predominantly black and white, that remind you of an aerial geological map of Mother Earth. Standing in front of these works, I had an out-of-body experience, hearing the music of a church organ, with a sound I heard through my eyes, instead of ears…

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(L) Detail of Mark Bradford's "I Don't Have the Power to Force the Bathhouses to Post Anything," 2015
(R) Installation view

In 2009, Mark Bradford was awarded the so-called "Genius Award" by the highly prestigious MacArthur Foundation. In the following years, an in-depth retrospective of his work traveled across the country, starting at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, then to Boston, Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco. To the dismay of Los Angeles art aficionados, this exhibition never came here, to his hometown.

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Mark Bradford
Photo courtesy of John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Of course, we are grateful to the Hammer Museum for organizing this excellent exhibition, with its focus on the recent body of strong works by Mark Bradford. But now, it’s time for another major cultural institution in LA to step up to the plate and present us with a thorough, in-depth survey of this Angeleno artist, who is a shining star of the national and international art scene. In the meantime, to learn more about Mark Bradford, I recommend the June 22 issue of the New Yorker, with its excellent profile on the artist by Calvin Tomkins.

All photos by Edward Goldman unless otherwise noted.