Bricolage: Visual Artist as Social Multitude (Mark Bradford in Chicago)

W. Keith Brown

Mark Bradford, Strawberry, 2002. Courtesy of the MCA

In 2007, Blake Stimson and Gregory Sholette published Collectivism After Modernism: The Art of Social Imagination After 1945. The text investigates artistic and cultural notions of collectivity under the schizophrenic conditions of postmodernity and late capitalism. Stimson and Sholette sought to better understand how artists come to terms with the past (modernity) and present (postmodernity) while working in groups. In January 2011, Sholette released his own book called Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture. “Dark Matter” uncovers the many invisible economies and radical art approaches explored in the shadows of the “formal” more established art world. Sholette’s book celebrates the “makeshift, amateur, informal, unofficial, autonomous, activist, non-institutional, self-organized” practices that run counter to the “managers of culture” i.e., “critics, art historians, collectors, dealers, museums, curators, and arts administrators” (Sholette, 2011). I cite these two books because each point to forces that have been brewing in Chicago for over forty years—an informal often provisional arts administration and art education collectivism. The opening of the Mark Bradford Exhibition and the Mark Bradford Project at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago coincides with a local discourse on artist collectivity, education, and social / community environments.

In recent years, Mark Bradford has become well known for his large-scale constructed surface paintings that employ “collage and décollage” as strategies for re-interpreting the artist’s personal lived experiences and cultural interactions (Mark Bradford, Art21). Bradford began his career in his thirties investigating familiar materials found in his mother’s beauty salon (see Strawberry, 2002). He then transitioned to making work constructed from found community material near his studio in the Leimert Park neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles. Bradford uses urban debris—paper-based artifacts recovered from local environments to counter meta-narratives and construct new visual realities. In the last few years, he has created videos, sculptures, and multi-media installations alongside the large-scale constructed paintings from found papers. The dominant currents in his work are the social and the found: found paper, found people, found environments, found situations, found knowledge, etc.

Mark Bradford, The World is Flat, 2007. Courtesy of the MCA

The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago has recently co-produced with Bradford two operations, the first is an exhibition, which serves as a survey of the artist’s work dating from 2001-2010. The second, a street-level community-based art education initiative called “The Mark Bradford Project.” The museum description reads, “The Mark Bradford Project connects MacArthur Fellow and contemporary artist Mark Bradford with different Chicago communities to interact around the creative process. Over the course of a year, Bradford serves as a catalyst for community engagement projects and ongoing discussions, including connecting Bradford with Lindblom Math and Science Academy, as well as teenagers in Digital Youth Network’s YOUmedia Chicago program at the Harold Washington Library” (Tricia Van Eck, 2010).

In talking with Mark Bradford, one soon discovers that he has a talent for constructing and deconstructing narratives, noticing what we often take for granted, and teaching. In Kaprowian terms, Mark is a man of the world, a contemporary observer / notice[r] of all things cultural (See The Artist as Man of the World, 1964 in Essays on the Blurring of Art & Life by Allan Kaprow). As evidenced above, Bradford is more than your average contemporary visual artist; he is not interested in showing up to exhibitions, installing work, and flying home. Bradford gains inspiration from the social, which is why he enjoys focusing on street-level community-based art education with youth. This kind of reflective critical social practice is an aspect of his work that is less discussed in art reviews, but aspects that Bradford believes to be his practice. He sees no division between working in the studio and exploring social issues with a group of creative young people; for him, it is all connected to the multicultural and contextual project that has come to define him as an artist.

In an interview conducted with Bradford, I asked several questions about youth art education and how one might reconcile her/his art-star status with street-level community-based pedagogical practices.

“The Mark Bradford Project is not something that I just decided to do. I think the Mark Bradford Project really started the moment I realized there was a certain type of currency  that I had developed from having a successful career. I had no interest in taking it and just going to parties or buying more shoes, I had no interest, but I was aware that there was power in that currency. It was very slow and organic at first, I sat on boards for non-profits, curriculum projects with the Getty, I did visiting artist lectures at universities… the stadium tours. The one thing I noticed was this discrepancy between high school and university. In the art world, I started looking at arts education, it always seemed so geared toward higher education, so I began thinking about what is underserved and… it’s high school that gets cheated” (Bradford | Brown, 2011).

Mark Bradford, Corner of Desire and Piety, 2008. Courtesy of the MCA

Bradford explained how the average high school student has little access to art education. He claims that what high school students learn (if they even get art classes) will have to be “unlearned when they get to college anyway.” For him, it is about engaging youth in a process that closely resembles a visual art investigation. As our talk continued, Bradford and I discussed his own art education growing up and why he feels compelled to collaborate with youth. In the past, Bradford had very few opportunities to make art; in middle school, efforts to do so were met with low enthusiasm causing the artist to disengage for many years. “I dropped off in about the 7th or 8th grade, but I remembered a teacher in the 5th grade that showed me collage and I realized how much it influenced me. So I thought, ya know, what I think I wanna do is work with, not so much junior high, but high schoolers… ya know, and if they want to be involved in the arts that’s fine, but if they have this desire to just create then that’s what I’ll do. That’s really how it began and then more and more and more” (Bradford | Brown, 2011).

In a sense, he uses the art celebrity to create situations that provide outlets for others to make, which then inspire his own investigations. It is a critical service-oriented practice that he and I feel other artists overlook.

“The disappointing thing for me in all of this is… I think more artists with careers need to start taking this on. I’m always disappointed because there are not more artists that do it—because all of them struggled, they all felt how I felt. I’m amazed there are so few artists at certain levels in the their careers not doing this kind of work. We always talk about more, more artists giving back and wanting to have more power and authority and not letting the commercial art world take hold of them. All this talkin’ about it, but before all of that, the way we can really take power is at the foundation, it’s by working with more people like you and others—that is taking the ultimate power back” (Bradford | Brown, 2011).

When discussing the celebrification of artists and the commodification of art, Bradford saw some glaring issues and offered some advice on letting go, “All you can control is what happens in your studio—what comes in and what goes out, and as it leaves the studio you have less and less control. It’s like the further away it gets from you the less and less you recognize it.” On negotiating how to explain a critical practice he believes, “The commercial part of what we do should not be at the center of every conversation. You have to demand that these other parts (community art education / social practice, etc.) sit at the table too. I just drag it all along, if you want that, you have to give me this. An artist needs to see himself as powerful and being in the driver seat; artists have to develop a larger vocabulary for wants, having a studio is one want, what about everything else? Here are the other parts I need as well. It’s all a package deal. Not just one part, an opening and a dinner—it’s about all of these different projects being one large thing” (Bradford | Brown, 2011).

Mark Bradford, Scorched Earth, 2006. Courtesy of the MCA

A recent article in October caught my eye in the MCA bookstore while waiting to interview Bradford. Inside is the sequel to a 2009 questionnaire produced by Yve-Alain Bois, Hal Foster, and David Joselit called Recessional Aesthetics. The up-dated piece, published again now as Recessional Aesthetics: An Exchange, uses response letters to the author’s questions as its focus. The introduction by Joselit discusses how the art world reacted to the economic collapse. One of the ideas put forth by one writer is that under economic struggle and crisis capitalism there lies the potential to liberate and empower artists and their publics by focusing on the art. Perhaps what is necessary is discontinuing bloated big budget Biennials, auctions, and art fairs, thus reorganizing art world priorities. Any optimism felt in the art world during this depression has likely come from those hoping to restructure the formal / commercial art world systems of power and dominance.

Little did I know, my interview with Mark Bradford would hint to the very collectivity and “Dark Matter” art world that might one-day achieve the power to shift the focus away from money and greed to educating people through visual art. In closing my conversation with Bradford, I asked him how we might continue promoting altruistic art practices. How might we connect others to social practice and community-based art education along with the other truly dynamic aspects of visual art? Bradford believes that “micro leads to macro,” doing things on a small scale with power and persistence will eventually lead to “art world / social change” (Bradford | Brown, 2011).

Mark BradfordThrough – September 18, 2011 Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 East Chicago Avenue.

Related Links:

Microsite for Pinnocchio is on FireWexner Center for the ArtsMark Bradford’s Getty Curriculum


Brown, W. K. (2011). Interview w/ Mark Bradford. Chicago Art Magazine.

Foster, H., Bois, A., & Joselit, D. (2011). Recessional aesthetics: an exchange. October 135, Winter 2011, pp. 93-116. October Magazine and MIT Press.

Kaprow, A. (1993). Essays on the blurring of art & life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stimson, B. & Sholette, G. (2007). Collectivism after modernism: the art of social imagination after 1945. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Sholette, G. (2011). Dark matter: art and politics in the age of enterprise culture. London: Pluto   Press.