Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Excerpt: Mark Bradford's "Border Crossings"

Last weekend I attended a book release party for Mark Bradford's monograph Merchant Posters at REDCAT here in LA. The highlight of the party was a conversation between Mark and Hammer Museum Chief Curator Douglas Fogle. Below is an excerpt from my essay "Border Crossings," which opens the book.

      There are no velvet ropes in Mark Bradford’s art – not within the work, not between him and the audience, and not between the multiple audiences he hopes to reach. The work itself is dense / multi-layered / staggeringly cross-referential ... Gut-bucket & refined; technically sophisticated & unabashedly mammy-made ... Dope. It’s a visual mix-tape scratched from both mainstream-familiar and underground-sub-cultural advertising slogans / from the titles, evoked ghosts and emotional truths of both vintage soul tunes and contemporary hip-hop (mainstream and indie … no snobbery allowed) / from Greek mythology, Negro folklore and modern-day Latino immigrant realities / from classic Hollywood flicks that are sampled for their viscera-strumming essences / … and from Bradford’s own autobiography: the working class / merchant class Negritude (resilience, innovation, persistence) from which he is sprung. It doesn’t exclude anyone. It refuses to erect “no entry” barriers around any neighborhoods or cultures, and doesn’t require either a degree in semiotics to make sense, or a hipster’s (or blueblood’s) art-world ID badge for access.
      The work crosses borders.
      To create his merchant posters, Mark canvasses Los Angeles, specifically the once-Whites-Only-then-primarily-Negro-now-equally-Latino part of South Los Angeles (formerly and infamously known as South Central) in which he works and still lives. It’s where he harvests the handmade advertising signs that he finds on telephone poles, on the fences and wood barricades that block off construction sites, and in the windows of mom & pop stores. Rewind and pause on a crucial point: Mark works in the same area where he lives, and where he spent the early years of his childhood. He hasn’t bounced to the hills of Hollywood or followed the trend of living in this year’s “hot” LA neighborhood; he hasn’t purchased a sprawling, overpriced Manhattan loft. His day-to-day, both personal and professional, is lived at ground-level.
      It’s fitting that the kinds of posters that Mark gathers proliferated like post-rainstorm mushrooms in the wake of the 1991 Rodney King riots. After the widespread burning and destruction of that civil unrest, the destroyed businesses that were boarded up became wide open canvases, with the wood used to seal them off providing free advertising space. Soon, those new layers of public space were fair game for anyone with a service or product to sell. To be sure, such use of fencing, telephone poles, building walls and the like is an age-old practice. But it took on a new level of intensity post-riots when the damaged and discarded remains of conventional business hubs were reclaimed, turned into the advertising foundations for new / hyper-local / (often) off-the-books entrepreneurship.

      Stroll through South Los Angeles’s Leimert Park, the enclave (and beating heart of LA’s Black arts community) that houses Mark’s studio, and you pass blocks and blocks of barber shops and beauty salons, as well as countless outlets hawking real human hair; soul food spots abound (Phillips BBQ – a ‘hood landmark that’s jam-packed on Friday evenings as folks swoop up their end-of-the-week, celebratory itis-inducing grub – is literally around the corner from him); Project Blowed, the internationally celebrated hip-hop open-mic youth project is within walking distance; shops selling art, music, incense, and African print fabrics are nearby. Folks carved from every shade of black and brown jostle alongside one another, just getting to where they’re going. Ordinary people. Spanish and English are spoken, as is Korean behind a few store counters; all language standards are fractured and then filled in with this week’s slang. Turn off the main thoroughfares and there is also block after block of tree-lined streets with carefully tended lawns, Spanish Colonial homes, post-war bungalows and art deco apartment buildings.
      When you follow the arc of Mark’s career, certain narrative threads emerge – a keen interest in lives that are lived on the margins, in the tools of survival employed by those same margin dwellers, and in the cultural production by folks whose everyday existence is defined by struggle. Dots are connected between disparate realities that, as his work points out sans didacticism or sentimentality, are not really so dissimilar upon closer viewing. Underscore closer viewing: to observe the quotidian in a new light, to unlock the myriad details housed in that which our eyes might fall upon so often that we no longer even see it – that handmade advertising sign; the poor bodies, brown bodies, Negro bodies huddled at bus stops, going to or coming from tedious, low-paying jobs; the scores of undocumented day workers gathered in the shopping center parking lot or working in shadow at hotels, restaurants, and so on. Mark’s interest in those who live on the outskirts of society and work in subterranean economies, traveling across clearly demarcated worlds in order to survive, is an empathetic impulse clearly rooted in his own autobiographical detail – both past and present. As vested as he is in the ever-shifting dynamics of struggling-class realities in LA, he’s also an avid follower of political, cultural, and social unrest across the country and worldwide. In his travels, he observes similar stresses – but also similar responses to those stresses – in spots ranging from South Los Angeles to Brazil, for example, and underscores those similarities in his art.

Here is an interview with Mark which appeared on Huffington Post just ahead of the conversation/party.

Buy Merchant Posters here.
Buy my books Blood Beats Vol. 1 or Vol. 2 at Amazon. Click here

Buy either Blood Beats book directly from my publisher Redbone Press, and you are supporting an indie, black-owned publishing house. You can:

1) Mail your order and a money order or cashier’s check to:
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PO Box 15571
Washington, D.C 2003
2) Phone in your order at: 202.667.0392 (Fax is 301.559.5239)
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