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From hairdresser to abstract artist: A studio visit with Mark Bradford

Artist Mark Bradford stands in front of a piece in his South LA studio.
Artist Mark Bradford stands in front of a piece in his South LA studio.
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Mark Bradford's work is slowly taking over the city of Los Angeles. His critically acclaimed show “Scorched Earth” is up right now at The Hammer museum and his massive installment at the Los Angeles International Airport, a piece he calls “Bell Tower,” was recently installed above the TSA screening area in the Tom Bradley Terminal. 

Despite having grown up in and around Los Angeles and earning a Master’s in Fine Arts from the California Institute of the Arts, up until now he’s been much better known outside California. In fact, the show at The Hammer is his first solo exhibit in L.A.

Earlier this week we visited with Bradford in his cavernous studio, which was formerly a warehouse for a welding company. It's located in an area of town Bradford refers to as "SLAIT," or:

South Los Angeles Industrial Tract. It’s a light industrial area of Los Angeles that was pretty bustling in the 80s and 90s. It had hard times and it’s kind of back again — it’s what downtown used to be in the 80s.

The studio is located under the flight path of LAX. In addition to the sound of low-flying jets, our day in Bradford's studio is punctuated by the rumble of semis and the horns of run-down food trucks.

Outside, one of Bradford’s assistants, Diego Lopez, used a blowtorch and emulsion solution to burn the text from a loan advertisement onto black paper. It was an ad for a predatory lender, the kind of strip mall outfit that charges exorbitant interest rates to low-income borrowers. Bradford explains:

These are numbers from Pay Day loan places. Sexy cash. That’s exactly where I got them from, off these kind of parasitic merchant posters. They’re like, We know you’re in crisis and we’re going to screw you over but not completely screw you over.

Installation view of "Mark Bradford: Scorched Earth," Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, June 20–September 27, 2015. Photo by Brian Forrest.

But Bradford doesn't simply pull things from the area and incorporate them into his practice. He's also made an effort to fit himself into the rhythm of his neighborhood.

I know who’s next door and who's down the street. They’ll knock on the door: "What is this, what do you do?" They come in, they talk to the guys, they talk to me. Some people don’t think I own the place and they ask for Mark Bradford. I am fully present wherever I am. Why bother being in a community or neighborhood and not being fully present? I think that’s colonization. I’m not interested in that.

However, Bradford has been connected to the South L.A. community since the beginning, really. He was raised by a single mother in the West Adams neighborhood, and he would go on to work at his mom’s Leimart Park hair salon. It was in that hair salon that Mark Bradford began repurposing things for his art — one man's trash, as it were.

“I was always pulling things from the streets, from the garbage. Even growing up I always had an interest in those things. I hadn’t put a word around it. But graduating from school, as with most students graduating from college, I knew that I was broke. And I knew that I wanted to be an artist.

So one day I was just working in the hair salon and these permanent wave endpapers, these two-by-two rectangles, I had a box of them and they fell on the floor. And I saw the translucent-ness of them and I saw how you could stack them and play with the luminosity, and they were cheap. So I grabbed one off the floor and stuck it in the hot iron that I worked with to kind of burn it.

You’re talking 50 cents a box. I could buy five dollars worth of material, and I could go buy some bed sheets at the Goodwill and paint them with house paint. I could have enough to work for a long time. I could play. You either have to find a way to be really creative materially, or you better have a trust fund. And, last I checked, I didn’t have a trust fund.

"Dead Hummingbird," 2015. Mixed media on canvas. 84 x 108 in. (213.4 x 274.3 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Joshua White.

Bradford says spending his younger years styling hair in his mother’s salon informed his art in other ways too. He says what he accomplishes now with a brush and house paint is very similar to what he did with scissors and hair dye.

Often times women come into the hair salon — I only dealt with African-American women — and their hair is naturally wooly. You know, we have wooly hair. And they show me a picture of Beyonce. So I have to take that hair from this state and will it into that state. Press it, weave it, color it, and dammit, by the time it’s over it it looks as close to Beyonce as I can get it. That’s how I learned my craft: taking it from one state and moving it to another state.

Of course, while there might be some similarities between the world of hair salons and the art world, there are some stark differences. For instance, deadlines — you know when you have to finish a haircut, because there's generally someone else waiting in line. But deciding when a piece of art is finished...well, that's another matter.

It’s like a relationship; you just know when it’s done. It may take you a while to get out of it, but you know when a relationship is done. You go through the first sighting in the bar, the flirtation, the heart pounding, the first date. You go through the I think this is gonna work and super elated and running around to getting married to This is not gonna work. I go through the arc of a relationship with every single painting that I do.

"Finding Barry," 2015. Excavated wall painting. Installation view of Mark Bradford: Scorched Earth, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, June 20–September 27, 2015. Photo by Brian Forrest.

Walking around Bradford’s studio, one notices the test for his AIDS mapping project called “Finding Barry.” At The Hammer, it’s what greets you when you walk into the museum: a giant map of the United States that Bradford made by carving through layers of old paint on a big wall. Elsewhere in his studio, there was a giant 25 by 20 foot mixed media piece he was finishing up for Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Bradford is not only one of L.A.’s most in-demand contemporary artists, he may be the nation’s. His pieces can sell for millions of dollars each. But Bradford still thinks the idea of contemporary art emerging out of South Central is a new one.

Having my studio in South Central, being a hairdresser, all the race, the gender... I needed a space for me, where I could figure it out on my own terms and on my own time frame. And abstraction does that for me.

The narrative oftentimes is that everything that comes out of the hood is "real," and so I thought, I’ll base it on the absurd, the not real. I’ll twist the idea of real on its head and see if I can get away with it. I’ll make paintings that come not from a place but through an abstract gaze.

We know what Eazy-E's “Straight Outta Compton” is, and we know what abstract painting is, and we know what South Central is.  But the idea that that comes out of this place — it’s just new. It’s like a new relationship with it.

"Lights and Tunnels," 2015. Mixed media on canvas. 84 x 108 in. (213.4 x 274.3 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Joshua White.

Growing up, Bradford, didn’t feel like there were enough African-American artists represented in the contemporary art world. And that’s something he wanted to change.

In my work, I was always interested in art history, the history of abstraction. And I was always fascinated by the fact that there were so few African-American men in abstraction — Norman Lewis and Jack Whitten. There were so many people that were operating and had been operating as abstract painters, but they have not been associated with that canon.

I was just super fascinated by the question, Would it be possible to be an African-American man, from a hair salon, a studio in South Central, and be an abstract artist? It’s like, Was that possible? Was that going to be allowed?

Does Bradford have an answer to his own question?

Absolutely you can make it. I think you have to find the right support for what you’re just trying to do.

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