Museum of Contemporary Art
220 E. Chicago Ave.
Chicago, IL 60611
Hours: 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.
We use maps to help us get places, explore geography or find the nearest place to eat. For artist Mark Bradford, maps are so much more than that - they're the basis for his striking artwork and the way in which he tells wholly compelling stories. In his new solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Bradford explores cities, natural resources and the way people interact in spaces, then "maps" them in his artwork. This is the first museum survey of Bradford's work, and it presents more than 35 works of art that he made from 2000 to the present.
Bradford, a Los Angeles-based artist, uses the word "painting" to describe his art form. But his paintings, which use only found materials like string, endpapers from beauty salons, flyers and comic book paper, are more like collages that he covers in acrylic gel and sands down. With these materials, Bradford examines pop culture and society, always with a political subtext.
Take the 2005 work Black Venus, a map of Baldwin Hills, a wealthy, black Los Angeles neighborhood. Baldwin looked up addresses in Google Maps and used pieces of paper to mark houses and roads over a map of the area. Bradford's titles, which draw on pop culture, music and books, are vital to understanding his work. Here, "Black Venus" was a 19th century term for women of African descent. Referring to the Roman goddess of love and fertility, "Black Venus" came to mean sexual potency. Bradford regularly draws from history to help think about contemporary times, and it gives his works a cyclical feeling.
Hurricane Katrina is a reference point for some of Bradford's recent works in this survey. One room of the show is devoted to Detail, a smaller version of Mithra, which he made to display in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. The massive, ark-like sculpture is made of wood and covered with peeling advertisements (materials rescued after the storm). The piece offers hope while it simultaneously critiques the government's response to the disaster.
Bradford's newest works are grayscale pieces like Grey Gardens, NTSC and PAL, which are made from newsprint, carbon paper and acrylic gel, and explore abstraction. They're also about artistic process, something you're reminded of as you look at Bradford's work. His pieces are muscular and deeply worked, but you always know what materials he's using. Take Hannibal, which is simply a pile of billboard paper, one of his most frequent materials, that sits on a table in the middle of the room.
Another map, Scorched Earth, (2006), really stands out. The painting shows a tilted, dark city skyline surrounded by white triangles and set against a blood red sky. Bradford's inspiration was the 1921 race riot in Tulsa, which left dozens dead and hundreds injured. It's an ominous work, evoking ruins, fire and destruction. While I was looking at this work, a man walked by and wondered aloud "what language does this speak?" He didn't pause for an answer, but I'd tell him that with his singular style, desire to put forth his political beliefs and curiosity about the world, Mark Bradford speaks a language all his own.
Mark Bradford is on view through September 18, 2011.
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