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Mark Bradford

Retrato del Artista by Mark       Bradford

interview transcript

Date of Interview: Nov 01, 2004
Location: USA
Topic: Interview with Mark Bradford in his studio
Interviewer: Bill Kelley Jr.

LatinArt:  One of the main discussions around your work has to do with your previous experience as a hairdresser and your choice of materials as an artist. To start off this interview, can you elaborate on or clarify that?

Mark Bradford:  Sure, a lot of questions have come up surrounding my previous vocation and material choices. At first I wondered why? I guess it was a good story but increasingly I have been investigating what draws me to this particular landscape over and over again - not so much the material choices but the landscape itself. The decision to use materials from the trade was an organic decision rather than a strategic one. The tissue paper was cheap which afforded me a certain artistic freedom I might not otherwise have enjoyed since I was broke coming out of graduate school. Using what was available; making something from nothing was an unconscious necessity. Coming from a merchant family, I had no art training but I had a lot of "necessity is the mother of invention" training. In a larger context I guess I pull materials from my local environment.

LatinArt:  I'm interested in the current discussion on urbanism and how this might possibly relate to a larger issue concerning how art interacts with people living in that environment.

Mark Bradford:  First of all, if you are in the urban now in this country, the now is brown. Popular culture still greatly constructs South Central Los Angeles as a black culture but the day to day flow is a black and brown conversation. A lot of the material I use comes from what I call merchant culture - signage and cultural ephemera. For me what intersect are the layers of local capitalism. "Plomero" (plumbing services in Spanish) signs next to "quickie divorces" next to a Juan Gabriel ads stapled onto top of a poster for Tupac Shakur's greatest hits, so many layers which inform and cancel out culture simultaneously so if I'm pulling from that, my immediate environment which is where I live and where you stumble over these intersections.

I like using advertising for this reason, not the billboards because of the heroic nature that makes you look up at them, the advertising I'm interested in has to do with what you actually see as a pedestrian, on a bus, or peripherally in a car. Generally this type of smaller advertising has a much closer relationship to the community because it's made to be that way. This advertising is so cool because it targets that community that's going to use it - "Ok we know that these people are going to take these buses so we're going to put advertising in this place". I like the way this sort of informal advertising flows within certain parts of the city. You see that in Mexico City a lot, but we don't see that much in Los Angeles unless you go to the south-east part of the city because the codes in the western-northern part are very restrictive. I immediately started working this sort of advertising and language because you just run into it. I'm like an anthropologist, so I notice shifts in demographics - the increasing Latino presence in informal advertising, the economy.

For example, I was walking down Crenshaw down to my hair salon on Crenshaw and 45th. Now Crenshaw is historically a black neighborhood, but there was a Latino man selling hub caps and I've never seen that before this far up, so I walk over and started a conversation so I said "hey so what are you doing, you can sell hub caps this far up, they let you do that?" He said "Oh yeah it's cool, we can come this far up, you just can't block the whole sidewalk because usually hub caps are pushed further south" You didn't see that when we got to Crenshaw. That was unusual to see hub caps being sold there. It's this kind of informal use of space and all these subtle shifts I observe that end up in my work.

LatinArt:  Texts written on your work seem to always mention your inclusion in the seminal "Freestyle" show organized by Harlem Museum curator Thelma Golden where the concept of "Post-Black" is introduced to a wide audience. I do see your work raising important racial and social issues in an art world not necessarily interested in discussing them. As a Latino living in L.A. I'm also interested in this Post-Black discussion as a larger "Post" question. For myself, the idea of "Post", as a strategy, allows me the authority to maneuver stereotypes. In other circles this concept is problematic.

Mark Bradford:  Exactly, I agree with you that "post" can allow you more authority to maneuver a stereotypes and I think this is what Thelma did with the Freestyle exhibition. What I find so interesting about the Post Black issue is that it's such a BIG issue. We have to stop the collective thinking. I mean, if one person says something and you don't agree then change the damn channel! Is it necessary to marshal the forces? No. Plurality in the "hood" needs to be exercised in the creative process from the beginning.

LatinArt:  Definitely, but this topic also brings up this other issue regarding the market and "ethnic" or national collective exhibitions. There seems to be a "re-regionalization" in terms of how international projects are proposed, weather you're talking about Post-Black, Post-Chicano or this website' it's a dilemma that we negotiate constantly. What about you?

Mark Bradford:  How do I negotiate that?

LatinArt:  Yeah.

Mark Bradford:  Los Angeles is a very segregated city. Race is yet to become really a complex issue in this country and that is also evident in the art world as you said with the "ethnic or national collective shows." Taking a simplistic racial equation and making it more complex is always challenging and may not be as well received by conservative museums or an art going public. Do I think the art world should be more sophisticated? Well that is a romantic idea, but how many people from the west side come to the south side for art shows. I mean what are the numbers? I see this dynamic you speak of as a series of negotiated relationships. Then again, sometimes you just need to break up.

The thing about stereotypes is that they are how many people recognize "other". If you don't dismantle these ideas about race we will continually be confronted with the static nature of collective bullshit. So how do I negotiate that? It basically comes down to individual sense. There are times in your career when you might have to take those shows and other times when maybe you don't need them. A better strategy, which I think is good one, is to take the show bound by the stereotype and then try to find a way to twist it from the inside, to use it as a platform. I used to always love to do Black History Month shows. (Laughs) I would turn the politics of black history month on itself - that is a strategy.

LatinArt:  Artists always give more interesting answers to these questions

Mark Bradford:  Everybody has different agendas. I mean I have my painting practice that has given me a certain amount of currency that is very different from site-specific works. I just move in and out of them. It's kind of funny because I grew up in this kind of informal way, an informal trade boy and I never knew about art. There were all these projects and jobs that I was doing - the hair salon etc. I didn't have an art background so I always looked at art as a very "that" environment, that historicizes, catalogs, and sorts away "I only want to get the artwork done" once I get there, to me "that" is the landscape of art. Like I always said: from the margin to the museum. Once I enter into "art" I am very conscience of this as a territory. Once in "that," it belongs to "that". When I'm out of it, to me that is art - that's life. When I'm in the studio just working, that's just life. That's just me doing my thing until its finished.

What really interest me are the ephemeral things before they become art - things that are just there, things that just happen. Culture, language-things you stumble on and of course it quickly becomes art. Gabriel Orozco is able to tap into that. Maybe you try to hold on to some of the same old qualities, but I always acknowledge the loss.

LatinArt:  A loss in translation?

Mark Bradford:  It never translates to what it was - never. I am an uncomfortable anthropologist in a way. Like you go to a ruin and kids have been playing on this ruin for the last 3,000. You come along like an anthropologist and you dig it up. You take it out of that village and you sort of incorporate it into your life and you put it into a museum. I guess that's fine - more people can see it. But it was a part of that local context. So I always have a strange feeling, as soon as I pull a work down. In a related way, the most interesting part about site specific work is working with the fabricators. They are laughing and laughing at you and saying "oh you're crazy, why would you want to do that, you're crazy". That's the fun part, knocking on the door saying "I'm trying to do this little thing can you help me out" That part is interesting.

It starts with desire-that's what I like. It starts with desire and it doesn't end there, absolutely not. It's something between desire and product. That's everything - the relation between desire and product. The politics are there but they're all mixed in as everything is. A man and a woman or a man and a man get together, the politics are secondary.

LatinArt:  Even the loss is enjoyable?

Mark Bradford:  The interesting part about that is that I lose one translation and it translates into something that I still find enjoyable. I am always aware of the fact that it's art. It translates over and then I think of how fun can I make this in the realm of art. Then it starts translating into other conversations and those conversations start to become conversations about art theory, things you connect in that whole system and that can be fun. There is a loss in translation, but there are other elements that actually make it interesting as well. What I'm hoping, that in the loss of translation and at the moment I pick up theory, there will be people writing about it. I like Michel Laguerre's writing at the moment. He's written a book called "The Informal City" I like a lot.

LatinArt:  Speaking of informality, I'm interested in your interest in "informal economies"

Mark Bradford:  Oh definitely - it's because that's where I come from. My family has always been a part of the market place in the 70s and 80s, my father had a truck, my grandfather had a truck. We went around all day selling dinners, soap, all sorts of things. What you see now in L.A. with Latino's informal businesses, we used to do all that. There was a history of Black people and Black businesses that existed outside of the formal businesses in this town-kind of like fringe economies. What I call merchant culture. From the beginning this experience really made me who I am.

The one thing I like about the fringe is that the fringe is always active. I remember my mother telling me "honey, you better get yourself a reason of being here" I would say "what do you mean mom?" She would say "you're not going to get no props. Get a reason for being in this world, you got to get yourself something to do - You better get going". I thought, shit I better get going-go start collecting bottles or go do something. You better be active because you won't eat. You better work! Everyone was husslin' baby! I came from this sort of dynamic fringe because you needed to do something. This is where I came from and this is engrained in me. Imagine if I hit a wall with this (referring to his art making) I would have just turned another corner. I would have done this for a while and if nothing would of happened, I would have moved on. I just got to keep moving. As a matter of fact, I was going back to school for film. I was going to leave all this before I spoke to Daniel Martinez. I would have gotten out of CalArts and worked the network like I was supposed to, but I didn't even know I was supposed to work the network, I was just doing my thing. So the door closed I was watching people getting shows. Daniel really helped me get started, and then what happened was that slowly there began to be so much activity, it kept me occupied. The momentum of the activity was there. I was not going to hang out with artists and just talk- no no no, I don't work that way. I was ready to put something together. That's where I come from, from people that put something together and put it together real fast. To me it's about the momentum of activity, it's what I love about certain parts of the city and what informs my work.

In any case, I gotta have projects going on, talking to people, exchanging things you know, yeah I'll talk to you the network. I like to work the network, to see what things are going on - you know things are happening...I don't like static.

LatinArt:  Now that your career is taking off how do you feel about your relationship to your work? Perhaps you just answered that.

Mark Bradford:  I could care less. Listen if I cared about my career I certainly would never have decided to make end-paper paintings for the biggest show I've had in LA at REDCAT. I wouldn't of done that type of work, are you kidding? - Absolutely not. And then I turn around and for the next two years I'm doing installation work (referring to inSite_05). I mean, you don't do that! You know that show at the Whitney? I fell on my ass. Whoo! It got bad reviews and people are like, "oh no Mark" and I'm like "So?" What has that got to do with anything? For me it's about the experience and I loved the curator and what came out of it was cool. Or least I thought so! I was doing my thing. That's the system - that's got nothing to do with me-nothing. You know, I will change my art as if I had just gotten out of grad school - I have no responsibilities. I make decisions based on desire and I follow my intuition.

LatinArt:  Is this part of your anthropological nature?

Mark Bradford:  I study everything. I'm doing this Home Depot goes like this. Today you see old black men with young Latino assistants because usually the black men weren't able to transfer over their job or the kids didn't want to take it, too educated, too much hard work, whatever.

I'm interested in the formal and in informality - in this informal structure where the Latino's body itself becomes a site for labor. I've done this thing where I take the Home Depot uniform and I give it to one of the laborers waiting outside for work and I let them help people in the store for as long as they can go. I watch them occupy this real space based on basically what they know - and they know a lot. It is interesting how quickly they can flow into the real- they can occupy that space just like that (snaps his fingers). Nobody expects anything other than the real at Home Depot. There a few things I need to work out since these guys are illegal and you don't want the police to come and arrest them, but it's an interesting project. Man, I can't tell you how many times I've been to Home Depot and an old black man will tap me on the shoulder and say "how is your mother?" and I'm like "what?" (Mark draws out the word as if he questioned the sur-reality of the situation) My mother and I, we used to build everything so they all knew her. For me this work is like a transfer, like a tradition.

LatinArt:  That's interesting.

Mark Bradford:  Yeah I've done it a couple of times. The work is called "Los Moscos", a term coined by Laguerre when he talks about day laborers. I've done it a few times, but it's a site specific kind of thing, with lots of technical issues to work out like what I'm planning for inSite_05, but that's for another discussion.

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