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.