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Eye Exam: Urban Re-Planning

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By Laura Fox

Mark Bradford’s mural-scale “Helter Skelter I” fills nearly an entire wall in his retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Complex, competing layers of images, colors, textures and materials are lacerated by overlapping networks of arterial lines streaming endlessly across its expanse. I attempt to follow one line across the plane, trying to absorb particulars despite its nearly hyperbolic immensity. Starting with the faded, upside-down text scrap “King,” the remnant of a merchant poster that Bradford found on the streets in his south Los Angeles neighborhood, my eyes travel to the layers of bubbling silver paper, bright day-glo colors and a half-submerged image of a woman’s face. My singular line disappears, merging with the larger system, so I jump from passageways to smaller alleys navigating my way through Bradford’s landscape.

Bradford’s art seems to welcome these intimate interactions. Although composed on canvas, none of his works are stretched or mounted onto a backing board. Instead, they adhere unceremoniously to the wall; the left-hand corners of “Helter Skelter I” even curl up, implying the limited temporality of its constructed surface.

From the far-left side of “Helter Skelter I,” I can see into the next gallery, where the silent video “Niagara” plays, showing a confident young man walking with flamboyantly rolling hips. The view focuses on his behind as he unabashedly negotiates the same Los Angeles streets from which Bradford dismantled the posters. This representational, microcosmic moment complements the collaged abstract macrocosms that surround it; Bradford inverts the viewing experience, now asking onlookers to understand the boy’s larger environment from his personal agency within it.

Whether inspecting the particular within a larger system, or a larger system from the vantage of a particular element, Bradford’s art-making reflects the dynamism, uncertainty and path-finding entrenched in daily urban experiences that necessarily confront fractured, branded and textured streetscapes.

Within that unchartered urban environment, Bradford advocates for forging good communication and empowering community-building. To frame that good communication, Bradford exposes the bad, most explicitly in “Corner of Desire and Piety,” a vast grid of seventy-two identical posters modeled after one he found in New Orleans’ post-Katrina Lower Ninth Ward advertising “PROPANE DELIVERIES TO FEMA TRAILERS” and including a merchant’s phone number. Reacting against the inhumanity of a service preying on vulnerable, impoverished people, Bradford replaced the original phone number with the one for FEMA, exposing the organization’s absence and using the repeated forms to encourage them to respond to the community’s unanswered calls for help.

A tribute to Bradford’s work to galvanize community-building in New Orleans assumes mythological proportions in a nearby gallery: an imposing ark-structure composed of readily available materials—plywood and merchant posters—that he created to recall the city’s ability to weather a catastrophic flood. He installed the original piece, “Mithra,” in the vacant lot of a funeral home in the Lower Ninth Ward. While the installation was part of Prospect.1 New Orleans in 2008, most of the international art fair took place across the river, which had been far less damaged by the storms. Bradford had originally donated a work on paper to help fund a local non-profit, but crafted the ark in response to the community’s need for a memorial, something to activate and enliven the desolate spaces surrounding them. In a 2009 interview with Hamza Walker, Bradford notes, “I asked [the community] to put it in whatever part of the Lower Ninth Ward it needed to be. Because this is going to be a destination. We’ll tell the ladies around the house, and they’ll come.”

Mark Bradford at Lindblom Academy. May 20, 2011

Extending this ability to assess and respond to the needs of a specific community to Chicago, Bradford collaborated with the MCA on The Mark Bradford Project, engaging high school students at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, as well as Digital Youth Network’s YOUmedia Chicago program, through sustained online and in-person interactions. According to Bradford, he worked with the teenagers to create artwork driven by their own “autobiographical energy,” inciting them to understand that “art is not outside of their experiences; it lives right there with them.” And, Bradford didn’t restrict the students’ understanding of the artists’ role to the act of making. Instead, he helped organize a downtown pop-up gallery exhibition of their impressive exercises in mapping the different spaces, routines, and experiences of being a contemporary teenager, as well as featured four student artists in a panel at the MCA on the night of his opening.

There, under the bright stage lights of the MCA’s auditorium, one student put her arm around Bradford’s shoulders, giving him a friendly hug midway through the panel. Another spoke about the need for “critical distance” in his artwork and how he now thinks art can change anyone’s outlook on life. When the panel’s host asked Bradford about whether he found a community with the students, he responded, “Community is really a nebulous word; it’s like a magic carpet, giving you the freedom to explore and imagine.” Fortunately, Bradford’s will to create is so strong that his imaginings often become grounded realities, returning to nurture the interlaced network of communities that inspired them.

Mark Bradford shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago, through September 18.

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