Built up, scraped down, and gouged into, Los Angeles–based artist Mark Bradford’s paintings, generally created from house paint, found paper, caulk, shellac, and other non-art materials, have an insistent physical presence that telegraphs their emotional and political underpinnings. In “Scorched Earth,” his three-part exhibition at the Hammer Museum, Bradford presented a suite of new abstractions, a two-story-high mural, and a video-art installation, each informed by both his own history and that of his home city.
In the museum’s lobby, Bradford—who came of age as an artist at the beginning of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s—had created a mammoth rendition of a map of the United States. Figures scratched into the map represented the number of AIDS cases per 100,000 people in each state as of 2009. Literally digging up the past, Bradford made the map by scoring and sanding down the surface of the wall, in the process revealing layers of paint from past art installations at the museum.
The installation Spiderman (2015), presented in a darkened room, consisted of a sound recording of Bradford delivering a homophobic comedy routine—partially based on one from Eddie Murphy’s 1983 HBO special, Delirious—while its text was projected on a wall. Though disturbing, it was not as searing as the canvases in a nearby gallery: 12 new paintings inspired by the 1992 uprising in Los Angeles that followed the beating of black motorist Rodney King by white LAPD officers.
The most powerful pieces in the show, these paintings were also, paradoxically, the most abstract. Bradford created them by layering sheets of printed and painted paper one on the other, then carving into the mass. Some resemble microscopic views of blood or tissue; others look like ravaged landscapes seen from above. While drawing potency from their link to real events, both past and present, these works nevertheless resist specific interpretation. They remain masterful abstractions, both beautiful and unsettling.
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 102.