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Mark Bradford’s solo exhibition, Scorched Earth, curated by Connie Butler at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, included twelve paintings, a mural, and a sound installation. Scorched Earth was tough and admirably far-reaching. Exquisitely detailed, the paintings evoked pain and violence. They looked inward and back, and they were surprisingly aqueous. Three haunting, untitled, twelve-foot-by-twelve-foot, black-and-white, unstretched canvases in a low-lit section of a gallery at the Hammer suggested dusky rivers and abrupt stops where Bradford accumulated, stained, and resisted staining by laying on and pulling away wet paper.
One of Bradford’s signature text paintings seemed like a non-sequitur, but it set a locale. The bright and blocky text painting in English and Spanish urged: “Rebuild South Central Without Liquor Stores!!” As much a slogan as a signifier for the current U.S. urban environment in general, this work by itself was neither clarion nor fully contextualized, yet still flagged South Central Los Angeles as a top layer of ground for the otherwise mostly abstract and hard-to-pin-down investigations included in the exhibition. Reaching into Bradford’s biography, Butler asked viewers to see his investigations as existing at the intersection of queer experience and black experience in Los Angeles.
Bradford tests and re-tests surfaces. He searches and buries. As a painter, he inters his own strokes and traces, then exposes some of what he first perhaps hid or obscured. He might partially erase a recent concealment then jewel over part of a reveal. He finds something he not-so-long-ago lost and subsequently conceals or protects some of that find. The best of Bradford’s paintings seem to hover in various stages, from violence to a more elevated state. They hold painful remembrances. They grieve. They seem to be about something—to map something, even—but it is often unclear exactly what.
In Dead Hummingbird (2015), a bird’s carcass—enlarged, scabbed, cloaked in matte black—appears to be stuck in a net, surrounded by balled-up black-paper pocks and creeping flames. Bradford built this painting by scraping, sanding, cutting, layering, and removing paper and paint. On the top right-hand side of the painting the flames seem to give way to a brighter but still-agitated sky. Yet the persistent net entraps the bird’s remains. Is the fire a Los Angeles fire—one of the fires lit in 1992 in Los Angeles following the acquittal of the police officers who brutalized Rodney King? Maybe. Maybe not.
Lights and Tunnels (2015) suggests an aerial view of a crowded space, a fly-over capture of a flooding city perhaps, or the record of a battle. Black, white, red, and light blue aggressively crisscross milky surfaces punctuated by yellow bruises and blasts of neon pink. Drudged trenches and cutaway paths in the surface of the painting are like thoroughfares for more pocks that seem to drive toward its center like tactical columns of troops. The Next Hot Line (2015) is more weathered and stark, suggesting architectural remains, bones, branches, or a tossing ship’s masts and hull. It is chalky white, icy blue, and carrion red. Are these paintings stand-ins for bodies, records of internal battles? Are they records of the activity of police and firemen?
To make the three paintings Sample 1, Sample 2, and Sample 3 (all 2015), it seems Bradford looked at slides showing disease. These smaller paintings use many of the formal elements that proliferate in Bradford’s other paintings at the Hammer, but in the Sample paintings this vocabulary came off hissing rather than scalding. The lines felt like spindly and brittle old Ferris wheel spokes, the ground like nullifying snow. It is as if the disease evoked in these incarnations is confident in its ability. It need not fight; it knows innately it can take over easily, quietly, and with intimate relentlessness. The outrage and inequalities that tend to accompany disease are human. To convulse, to scream, to refuse to care are terrible and human. Disease itself is less animated. It envelops; it comes incisive, cruel, and unreservedly confident.
Probably referring to the Sample paintings back in his Los Angeles studio, Bradford told Calvin Tomkins of The New Yorker: “They’re all based on AIDS cells under a microscope. I don’t want to say the show is about AIDS, but it’s about the body, and about my relationship to the nineteen-eighties, when all that stuff hit. It’s my using a particular moment and abstracting it” (Calvin Tomkins, “What Else Can Art Do?” The New Yorker, June 22, 2015).
Scorched Earth evoked the trauma of the AIDS epidemic as well as the information—and disinformation—concerning the disease. In the lobby of the museum, Bradford and his assistants drew a map of the United States by sanding off the white wall paint to find layers of color underneath. The sanded striations of color became state boundaries and numbers corresponding to the number of people living with AIDS in each state in 2009 per 100,000. For non-mathematical minds, and without supporting information, it is difficult to fathom how these cold statistics relate to bodies in crisis: 13.5 in Texas, 17.5 in Georgia, 29.2 in New York, 2.4 in Wyoming, 12.5 in California. Perhaps that is the point. Much of the public record about HIV/AIDS is obfuscated, homophobic, repressive, and motivated by fear.
In Douglas Crimp’s 1987 essay “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic,” originally printed in October (43 [Winter 1987]: 237–71) and reprinted in the catalogue for Scorched Earth, Crimp rebukes “all those who would rather see gay men die than allow homosexuality to invade their consciousness” (exhibition catalogue, 76), for instance, the infamous, conservative North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms who denigrated educational cartoons that depicted gay men using condoms and declared erroneously: “Every AIDS case can be traced back to a homosexual act.” Crimp states his own political position: “Anything said or done about AIDS that does not give precedence to the knowledge, the needs, and the demands of people living with AIDS must be condemned” (73).
Add comedians to this mix, and it isn’t long before black mega-star Eddie Murphy comes to mind. In a conversation in the catalogue for Scorched Earth, Bradford says: “I was mad at everybody in 1980. When Eddie Murphy got up there and started talking about faggots, and everybody in the auditorium laughed. Just rage; it was rage” (181). Later in the same conversation, Bradford describes the methodology he used to create the sound installation, Spiderman (2015), sited across the courtyard from his paintings at the Hammer: “I reconstructed the whole Eddie Murphy environment and the Delirious costuming, and I embodied it. I just made him trans, so, he’s actually a trans man. It allows me a space to comment and to critique and to enter that mainstream relationship to gender, sexuality, and race. So, it is like the artist going back into the mainstream and body snatching” (183).
Bradford gives voice to a fictional stand-up comedian, Spiderman. Spiderman is not gentle or sensitive. He’s surrounded by ignorance; he’s misinformed. He riffs for the audience about a friend who inserted birth control up his ass to try to protect himself from the disease. He says he warned his own young nephews about HIV/AIDS, declaring: “There’s some new shit on the horizon, it’s gonna make your dick fall off.” In its own way, though, Spiderman’s comedy is profound. His rough humor doesn’t cover his fear or his own vulnerability. As characterized by Bradford, Spiderman is not delirious, he’s petrified. Spiderman, as a sound installation, does not seem to be the presentation of a political position exactly, but an evocation of a vastly uncomfortable space.
Scorched Earth offered a long view that was puzzling, troubling, and passionate. It considered hostility, disease, and ignorance, determining that the earth is indeed scorched. It is ravaged and moribund.
Associate Dean of Graduate Studies, Maryland Institute College of Art