Contemporary art astonishes with the variety of its forms and underlying meanings, pushing the viewers towards the new horizons of understanding. The proliferation of artistic creations is accounted for the absence of constraints or limitations, encouraging self-expression to the fullest degree. Nowadays, life and art are so entwined that, sometimes, it becomes difficult to distinguish one from the other. Nevertheless, they both draw the inspiration from each other, blurring the line of definiteness and clarity. The close proximity between art and life can be illustrated in Mark Bradford’s paintings Scorched Earth (2006) and Ridin’ Dirty (2006).
Ellen Key once said: “The more horrifying this world becomes, the more art becomes abstract”. This simple, yet truthful statement is in tune with the themes of Mark Bradford’s collaged paintings Scorched Earth and Ridin’ Dirty. They are unconventional interpretations of an urban landscape, which urges the viewer to speculate about life and death, past and future, reality and imagination. The paintings can be easily translated into words, as everything that Bradford creates deals with the issues of race, gender, and class, which divide American society into opposing groups.
In order to render the complexities and contradictions of contemporary urban culture, Bradford uses a variety of materials in his highly individual work. Although Mark Bradford calls himself a painter, his technique does not comply with any conventions, rules, styles and traditions. Like many abstract painters, he constantly seeks for new ways of expressing his identity and impressing the viewer. He is good at touching upon both intellectual and emotional spheres. Bradford creates his enormous geometric compositions that are as large as billboards, making use of different collaged materials, such as billboard paper, newsprint, photomechanical reproductions, carbon paper, acryl paint, bleach, etc., which he skillfully pieces together or strips apart to maintain an optical illusion of a puzzle. The artist chooses paper as his favorite medium of conveying messages to the public. As Rosalind Krauss (2008) reminds us: “So remote is the idea of the medium from the center of attention of the contemporary viewer that concern for the medium is often confused with very different preoccupations” (p. 66). Bradford finds materials for work at various sites of Los Angeles and draws inspiration from its streets.
Scorched Earth resembles a topographic map or a bird’s eye view of a city grid. In order to make it seem real, the artist studies real maps and then interprets them, using his own artistic language. Bradford applies thick and thin brushstrokes to create a sense of tension, repeated elements to show rhythmic movement, contrasting tones to depict turmoil, and angular and curvaceous shapes to demonstrate external reality. His lines are simple, delicate and bold at the same time; they twist and twine on the canvas, proving that the artist is in control of his masterpiece. The degree of spontaneity is minimal in this particular work of art, and it seems that, like in a puzzle, every element fits into its place. Muted tones add dramatic effect to the painting, emphasizing the complexity of the subject matter. It seems that flat colors dominate in the color scheme. Bradford states that rich colors help him create the feeling of tension. He admits that using so much color is unusual for him. He feels a bit uncomfortable about his preference for red, which is a hot, moving, dangerous, demanding and captivating color. Passing by this painting, it is impossible not to feel the destructive energy, emanating from it. It is arranged like a quilt, where bright, vigorous, and dark patches overlap, reinforcing order and chaos in the minds and hearts of those who observe it. The artist should be credited for his coherent and forceful expression of motion, which is achieved not by a bold color scheme, but by careful addition and removal of materials that form spatial parameters of the work. I like this abstract painting for it allows numerous interpretations that spring up from acute powers of observation. Sodom and Gomorrah, Judgment Day, tumor, battlefield, scene of the crash, city burnt to ashes – these are only a few of the associations, triggered by Bradford’s compelling canvas.
Mark Bradford ‘Ridin’ Dirty’
Ridin’ Dirty is another masterpiece in Bradford’s collection. It is composed of merchant posters in a geometric way. The title refers to Chamillionaire’s song Ridin’that recounts about stereotyping and prejudices against African Americans. The interplay of black and white produces an effect of racial tension, codified in rectangles of different texture with the inscriptions on them. The canvas can hardly be called pleasing to the eye; rather it dazzles the viewer by a mesmerizing explosion of cool and depressing colors. The pieces, used in this collage, are recognizable, as they are a part of an advertising culture. Some of the pieces are thought-provoking, while others are simply challenging or deliberately ostentatious. Ridin’ Dirty challenges the perception of self, crowd and society in general. I am fascinated by Bradford’s attention to details, allowing viewers to zoom in his work and ask all sorts of questions. I can stare at this canvas for hours without feeling bored or tired. In my opinion, close observation makes this particular work of art captivating and unforgettable. If it was exhibited outside the gallery, for instance, in a street or on a billboard, it would be perceived differently, without doubt. From a distance, it looks like a mess, but closer examination reveals meticulousness and precision, with which the artist implemented his idea or rather ideas. To my mind, Bradford reflects society as a close-knit network of people of different races, cultures and religions. There are no two identical patches, although they may be of the same color. The artist wants to emphasize that we are unique individuals, even though we share similar beliefs, values and principles. Bradford is definitely interested in the complexities of interactions between people as well as their common and divergent features. He reminds us that we are living in a heterogeneous society that tends to label people according to various characteristics. I think, everybody can relate to this paining, as we all try hard to fit into our society, finding the right place under the sun.
I think Bradford’s underlying concepts and experimental techniques make his works a chef d’oeuvre of contemporary art. His paintings are a real delight for the viewer, entailing a variety of mixed and conflicting visual and emotional sensations. They leave more questions than answers and highlight urgent problems of the twenty first century. With the change of reality, the perception of oneself, society, and environment alters. People are no longer interested in representational art that provides no stimulus for intellectual and emotional growth, and turn to abstract art that bypasses traditional perception and reaches into impenetrable world of unconsciousness. Every single detail in Scorched Earth and Ridin’ Dirty serves this trendy need to stir the beholder’s imagination and leave a permanent imprint on their soul.
In my opinion, Bradford’s paintings can tell many interesting, tangible, and captivating stories in many different voices. Some stories may surprise, horrify, even mesmerize as long as the outsider wants to listen to them. I would advise the latter to let their imagination guide them through twists and turns of the canvases. This trip will definitely be unforgettable, full of excitement from the observation of an urban environment. However, it will not be completely devoid of pain and tension that the beholder will likely confront. Bradford gives a splendid opportunity to satisfy one’s intellectual, emotional and visual curiosity and become a part of his masterpieces. Maybe, he wants us to once again reshape our attitude towards social problems of race, status and class and contemplate about destructive impacts of riots and war on the territory, and on one’s personal world. It is really interesting and fascinating how some useless stuff, which we ignore in everyday life, can turn into magic. On the whole, Scorched Earth and Ridin’ Dirty are the extremely challenging, thought-provoking and engaging pieces, inviting people to explore their enormous complexities.