Society through poster ads, in Mark Bradford exhibit at the Aspen Art Museum
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – The information Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford works with in his commercial-poster art is as basic and simple as possible: A phone number, maybe an address. The name of the business. The services provided, conveyed in as few words as possible. Even on the design level, there is a lack of subtlety in these signs. They are rendered in shouting neon tones, and the text is in bold block print.
“Emergency colors. Because they want to get your attention.” Bradford says of the yellow, orange and pink shades featured on the business posters that are everywhere in L.A. “And always against a black background. Always.”
Bradford, however, is a Los Angeleno through and through – born and raised in Santa Monica, and now a resident of Leimert Park in South Central, where he has his studio. So Bradford finds worlds of meaning, narrative and below-the-surface significance to the signs – especially when they are exhibited in a large-scale collection, as they are, for the first time, in a current show at the Aspen Art Museum, on exhibit through April 4. Surrounded by 36 of the pieces, a series which he has been working continually on for a decade, Bradford sees themes of immigration, religion, lawfulness, community instability and, above all, solid evidence that the legendary quality of American business ingenuity does indeed exist.
“In Los Angeles, there’s a lot of very informal economies,” said the 48-year-old Bradford, standing tall – six-foot-eight – amidst his work at the Aspen Art Museum. “It’s a place where new immigrants can actually start a business in that gray area of legality. It’s far enough from that gaze of the center of power, so they have some wiggle room. These businesses have a short shelf life, address an immediate need.”
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Like the business themselves, Bradford is operating quasi-legally in making the art. The posters are attached by plastic ties to fences; they usually come in groups of 10 or so, all on the same fence. Bradford figures the posters have, at most, two weeks before they are removed by the police, so he will help himself to the a poster. If there is just one hanging in a particular location, he won’t take it.
“Everything is a gray area,” he said. “It’s kind of illegal, me taking it down. It’s kind of illegal, them putting it there. Me, the city and the advertisers play a little dance in putting them up and taking them down.”
But the essence of Bradford’s art is not the semi-swiping of posters destined for the trash; it’s not performance art. Bradford is a painter; the bulk of his work are large-scale paintings, often using mixed media, that he describes as “topographical-type paintings.” “They look like levees breaking down. They feel like cities,” he said. With the posters, he traces the text in twine, then alters the surface by adding elements or sanding them away. The posters become less about the information they originally contained – in most cases, the text is barely legible after Bradford is done with it – and more about the look, what the artist has added or subtracted from it.
“Although these are found objects, I get them into my studio and manipulate the surfaces and they become more painterly,” he said. “I have a desire not to leave them as found objects. I want a mark of my partnership with them. It creates a relationship between parts: drawing and sculpture, gritty and elegant, kind of social and in your face, but also hidden and camouflaged. Quiet yet intense.”
But Bradford seems intensely interested in the social aspect of the work. He notes that growing up he wanted to be an archeologist, and would dig up his backyard, hoping to find dinosaur bones. (“I only found dog bones,” he laments.) And by leaving the text just barely legible, the posters reveal something about the social and business climate in Bradford’s Los Angeles. The exhibition sheds light on the kinds of businesses – gun shows, divorce and custody experts, auto body shops, drug rehab houses – that use guerilla advertising as their main source of getting through to potential customers. And if you made a timeline of the poster works, you would see the shifts in the social climate.
“In some ways, I think you can read culture,” he said. “What you see now is, ‘Are You Losing Your Home?’ ‘Foreclosures, Foreclosures, Foreclosures.’ A year ago it was, ‘Easy Credit Available.’
“You can almost follow what happens. I bet if you laid these out on after another, and then laid out newspapers next to them, there’d be a relationship.”
Perhaps the constant in the work, and what Bradford is spotlighting, is the way businesspeople who exist just under the surface of legitimacy are getting across their message.
“I’m always amazed at the tenacity of people, and the desire to be the man of his own ship,” said Bradford, who grew up making frequent visits to his mother’s South Central beauty salon, sandwiched among a TV repair shop, a mattress store, and a business that dealt in goods from Nigeria. “I read a wall, culturally and socially. One day there will be another sign that has nothing to do with gun shows and cheap auto insurance. It’ll be, ‘Got Termites and Bed Bugs?’
“And it’ll get you thinking: bed bugs. People in small quarters, and they can’t afford to get a new mattress. But you need to get rid of the bed bugs. So some guy will say, I get rid of bed bugs. It’s a guy who would rather get rid of bed-bugs than go work at McDonald’s.”
Bradford shows a similar deep knowledge of the culture he lives in when it comes to a Spanish-language sign concerning divorce – probably the most common poster in his neighborhood. The Spanish-speaking population is largely Catholic, a religion which has traditionally been intolerant of divorce.
“It talks about shifting relationships to the church, changes that come with immigration,” he said.
Bradford’s commercial posters can be likened to graffiti. They are quasi-legal forms of expression, not only out in public but in open spaces where they can be ravaged by the elements, deteriorate – but might still remain in some form.
“Tagging is a way of saying, ‘This is my territory. I exist,'” Bradford said. “And that’s what these businesses are doing, claiming social space.
“Civilization, the passing of civilization and the traces human beings leave on the land. It’s no different than pottery, shards of clay that people leave behind. I wonder what they’ll look like 30 years from now. I wonder where we’ll be 30 years from now. I wonder what the needs will be 30 years from now.”
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