The premier New York solo exhibition of new paintings by Los Angeles based artist and hairstylist Mark Bradford, entitled I don’t think you ready for this jelly, represents a new corpus of six paintings. Smaller in scale than the monumental works that first introduced the artist to New York audiences in Sima Familant’s “A Place Called Lovely” and Thelma Golden’s “Freestyle,” the enormous effect of the original paintings (8×9 feet) is by no means minimized by the more modest dimensions of the new works. Bradford’s intervention into grid painting cum assemblage produces his own signature brand of highly formal geometric abstraction based on the accumulation and composition of square papers for cellophaning hair. The stratum of both paint pigment and residue hair products creates variegated and incandescent surfaces. The production of glittering, dense, and dynamic canvases – including quotations from print media and images from billboard signage of black hair styles – marks a critical intersection of the aesthetics of both painting and hair styling as rooted in titles such as Click and Jhericurl World, wherein permanent-wave wrapping endpapers meets acrylic on canvas.
Bradford seems engaged in the paradox of painting and abstraction. The work has an ambivalent relationship to the historically over-determined body. Subjectivity is asserted as both presence and absence, removed yet asserted by means of a similar strategy to Glenn Ligon’s meditations on race and representation vis-á-vis a turn towards abstraction and bodily negation. In Bradford’s production, a kind of painterly portraiture is signaled in the corporeality of these abstracted works, enhanced by the tangible objects as surrogates that register a kind of physical presence. The body is indexed not in its entirety but through the skin of the surface and the tokens of hair culture, like Sonia Boyce’s “hair-things” in the UK. However, Bradford’s gesture is extremely particular to the American context in terms of cultural translation of vernacular styles. As Kobena Mercer speaks of the symbolic personal, political, cultural, and historical manifestations of hair culture as constructive in the formation of subjectivity and “black stylization,” so too does Bradford. These cultural signs in Bradford’s hybridized form speak to both excess and indeterminacy of meaning in his fusion of both abstract and concrete notions of identity. In an era of “global post-modernism” it is interesting to see Bradford engage in what he terms “black modernism” (a term internationals tend to detest and Americans seem to embrace).