New York

Mark Bradford

Lombard-Fried Projects

Mark Bradford, an artist who works as a hairstylist in South-Central Los Angeles, displays a deceptively austere sensibility in the modular veils of subtly graded hues that ripple over the surfaces of his latest paintings. But the purity of the abstract modernist references radiating from these restive, cellular grids quickly assumes a funky liveliness far removed from the transcendental silence and order of, say, the work of Agnes Martin, to which they are often compared. A close look reveals that Bradford’s shimmering, variegated forms are composed of overlapping squares of cellophane and paper used in various dyeing, straightening, and curling processes, sometimes layered over salvaged remnants of posters or alongside cutouts from hairstyling magazines. It is the painterly use to which the tools of his trade are put that clarifies the title of Bradford’s first solo New York exhibition, “I Don’t Think You Ready For This Jelly” (from a recent song by pop group Destiny’s Child).

Such candor might seem ingenuous were it not for the fact that Bradford, who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from the California Institute of the Arts, succeeds in transforming his occupational handiwork into a reinvigorated rather than elegiac abstract expressionist order. He brings in a range of references to an African American vernacular: the constantly changing slang of hip-hop evident in his titles; a sculptural ’do in one cutout image and in another an elaborate cornrow pattern resembling a beautiful fossil. Elsewhere, with a P.R.O.C. (People’s Republic of China) product label, Bradford wryly alludes to another cultural exchange within his beauty world, the Asian hair that is imported and sold in the United States for weaves.

Bradford’s recycling of the resources in his environment contributes to the vocational mix—a word whose musical connotation is apt. There is in fact a prominent musicality that informs the structure of works such as Click or On a clear day I can usually see all the way to Watts (all works 2001)—not just in the particular chordlike progression of the grids or in the subtle, steady shifts in palette, but also in the measured cadences in which the dexterous artist applies hos squares of foil and paper to the canvas. Within this visual blend, the production of art, music, and fashion becomes democratized, as any number of cultural and historical allusions, high or low, may be invoked: Some of the cutouts bear images of wigs whose styles comment on assimilation; the show’s one sculptural entry, High Yellow (four old beauty-salon armrests with built-in ashtrays, on which the artist has arranged yellow clay pigeons), borrows its title from a derisive term for pale-skinned African Americans.

By clearly establishing his own identity in his work, Bradford amplifies the meaning of “postblack,” a term used last year by curator Thelma Golden in her Studio Museum of Harlem exhibition “Freestyle,” in which Bradford was included. A central goal of “Freestyle” was to address the need, felt by many African American artists, to transcend the restrictive label “black artist” in order to redefine, in Golden’s words, “complex notions of blackness.” Bradford’s lighthearted and sensual paintings resonate in a similarly open-ended context. Determined less by rhetoric than by the pleasurable exigency of cultural celebration, the artist’s handling of “color” becomes at once abstract and personal. Then again, dealing with roots in experimental ways is what Bradford does for a living.

Mason Klein