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Reconstructing Abstraction: Bradford at The Wex

Jeff Regensburger Jeff Regensburger
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Mark Bradford’s current exhibition at the the Wexner Center serves as a potential springboard for dozens of conversations about art and society. The layered detritus of old billboards and advertising posters invites viewers to examine a particular place and time. The use of text (both in the titles and the works) directs our attention to larger issues of class, race, and justice. The materials themselves ask that we contemplate what painting can be; while the artist’s reliance on found paper raises questions about future projects (particularly as more and more promotional efforts go digital).

While those are all conversations I’d encourage, I was most struck by Bradford’s ability to reframe painting and abstraction in a whole new light. He does this with tools and methods that are simultaneously traditional and transformative.

On the traditional side, Bradford’s work reads like a kind of history lesson in large-scale, heroic abstraction. Though I’m somewhat embarrassed to find myself resorting to comparisons (comparisons usually being the last refuge of lazy critics), Bradford’s work positively invites it. I can’t look at the colors and grids in Strawberry without seeing a trace of Nicholas de Stael. I can’t acknowledge the manic lyricism of Bread and Circuses without also reflecting on the manic abstractions of Dubuffet. I can’t contemplate the brooding layers of Smokey without also imagining the brooding layers of Anselm Kiefer. Similarly, there’s a scale and proportion to the canvases that make a kind of traditional sense. They feel right. They’re the size we like our large abstract paintings to be. They don’t all necessarily adhere to the Golden Ratio, but they’re in that ballpark.

On the transformative side, Bradford’s works aren’t exactly paintings. Oh they use some paint, sure, and they’re often stretched on canvas, but when you get up close and really look at how these works are constructed, you’ll see the trick. They’re not abstract paintings as much as they are billboard scraps, posters, permanent-wave end papers, string, caulk, carbon paper, and acrylic gel all mashed together to look like abstract paintings.

Perhaps that seems like too fine a distinction make, but I’m willing to say it’s important. It’s taken over one-hundred years to develop the visual vocabulary of modern abstraction. That vocabulary (which includes tone, composition, tension, rhythm, balance, and scale) has been created and moved forward mostly with paint and brush. Bradford, to his credit, has found a another way. His work demonstrates that the evocative shapes and rhythms of heroic abstraction can be constructed with found paper, billboard remnants, and posters. They can be manipulated not just with a brush, but with the knife, belt sander, scissors, and the simple act of tearing.

In a time when digital media (and digital art) are growing by leaps and bounds, it’s refreshing to see work that is so physical, so tactile. Viewed up close, the hand of the artist is clear. In creating this body of work Mark Bradford manages to move our conversations about art forward without abandoning the past. That’s a fine line to walk, and one that Bradford treads with grace, skill, and brains.

Mark Bradford is on view at the Wexner Center for the Arts though August 15, 2010

Jeff Regensburger is a painter, librarian, and drummer in the (currently dormant) rock combo The Patsys. He received a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts (Painting and Drawing) from The Ohio State University in 1990 and an Master’s Degree in Library Science from Kent State University in 1997. Jeff blogs sporadically (OnSummit.blogspot.com), tweets occasionally (@jeffrey_r), and paints as time allows.

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5 Responses to Reconstructing Abstraction: Bradford at The Wex

  1. Burk022
    Burk022 June 21, 2010 9:07 am at 9:07 am

    there’s also an amazing site to view his work at the wex and get some insight into the man himself – http://www.pinocchioisonfire.org/

  2. Jeff Regensburger
    jeff_r June 21, 2010 11:41 am at 11:41 am

    Thanks for mentioning that Burk022! I should have linked that in the review! It’s a great site they’ve developed.

  3. mbhays
    mbhays June 24, 2010 9:07 am at 9:07 am

    Epic collage on a grand scale!  Braque and Picasso would be very proud.  Beautiful work.

  4. Jeff Regensburger
    jeff_r June 24, 2010 9:46 am at 9:46 am

    I’m glad you brought up collage, because that’s something I thought about as I was writing this piece. What struck me about Bradford’s work was that he’s using the materials of collage in a way that almost disguises them.

    In most collage, the fact that I’m looking at something “made of paper” is readily apparent. I instantly recognize photos, text, overlap, tears, and hard edges. With Bradford it was different, I kept seeing forms, patterns, rhythms and shapes first. It was like I had to keep reminding myself, “they’re paper”.

    …and it really is beautiful work too. I expect I’ll be back a few more times before it closes.

  5. Walker Evans
    Walker July 12, 2010 7:49 pm at 7:49 pm

    Media Release:
    MARK BRADFORD EXHIBITION HELD OVER THROUGH OCTOBER 10

    Mark Bradford-the first museum survey of the artist’s work, organized by the Wexner Center and touring to four venues coast to coast through 2012-will be held over at the Wexner Center for the Arts through October 10, 2010, marking a two-month extension.

    More information on this critically acclaimed exhibition, the extension, the tour, the catalogue, and the groundbreaking microsite pinocchioisonfire.org (which has been garnering international recognition in its own right):

    http://www.wexarts.org/about/press/ex/20100711bradford_extend.pdf

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