New York

Mark Bradford

The titles of Mark Bradford’s recent exhibition, “Nobody Jones,” and of featured works such as the collage painting Ghost Money (all works 2007), hint that the show’s abstraction of urban topography might find an echo in the notion of hauntology. The term, originally coined by Jacques Derrida in 1993 and recently revived by a clutch of popular-music critics to describe recordings that conjure a retro-futuristic vision, refers to the suggestion that society is increasingly in thrall to ideas and aesthetics that are picturesquely obsolete. Cultural dead ends and blind alleys. Specters. That Bradford makes canvases in which the graphic detritus of his native Los Angeles has been buried and stratified only to be partially unearthed suggests a vision of the present as constantly shadowed by the past.

The sprawling matrix at the center of Ghost Money floats against a patchy field of silver-gray; an interzone of noncolor inflected by non-forms that also echoes the hauntological construction of the specter; that which exists only as a twilit half-presence. Using reclaimed billboard posters as well as pages from magazines, comic books, and newspapers to create a flickering, fragmented record of urban sprawl and decay, Bradford reanimates the ripped-and-torn décollage methodology trademarked by Jacques Villeglé and Raymond Hains in the 1950s. Piling paint, ink, and other materials on top of his salvaged base, and marshalling an array of sanding, scraping, ironing, and bleaching techniques to manipulate it still further, he filters and intensifies the diverse effects of its sources. Yet while his work has all the density and richness of the French New Realists’, it also shares with New Realism, in its admittance of the arbitrary and the cluttered, an intermittent tendency to either nonplus or overwhelm. It is arguably too true to its context, apt to be as thrilling or as crushing as the metropolitan setting itself.

Other works in the show employ a similar vocabulary. In Giant, a warped weblike pattern, raised slightly from the surface of the canvas, spreads across a background flecked with atomized movie and music ads (HORRORFEST; CASH) that might or might not be readable as a cut-up meditation on the artist’s experience as a gay black man growing up in downtown Los Angeles. Orbit is structured around a more straightforwardly rectilinear city grid, disrupted by the clipped image of a basketball pasted over its gap-toothed mosaic of disembodied color. Bradford’s earliest employment was as a “beauty operator”—a hair stylist—and he draws on this experience here and elsewhere via painterly variants on weaving, beading, and tinting. (In earlier works, including those featured in Thelma Golden and Christine Kim’s oft-cited 2001 exhibition “Freestyle” at the Studio Museum in Harlem, he even applied hair dye and curler endpapers to the pictures’ surfaces.)

James Brown Is Dead is a twenty-two-foot, four-inch-long paper banner that looks ready to disintegrate at any moment. A seeming reference to the 1991 techno anthem by Dutch duo L.A. Style, the work’s headlinelike title is partially excised from a typically layered mélange of printed matter. The musical allusion suggests (as does the morbid pronouncement itself) a further play on hauntology. Just as L.A. Style staged a playful manipulation of pop history (Brown in fact survived until 2006) in order to comment, with sophisticated irony, on both its tradition of tribal antagonisms and its sedimentary stylistic makeup (funk persists alongside techno), so Bradford’s work represents LA as a site of diverse circumstances and peoples that often appear mutually exclusive but somehow negotiate a coexistence.

Michael Wilson