Can abstraction be social? The question arises while pondering Mark Bradford’s latest show. Though it includes videos and sculpture, the focus is on towering paintings distinguished as, yes, “social abstractions,” meaning related to growing up gay and African-American in a tough L.A. neighborhood. In keeping with the conventions of identity politics, Bradford reifies his background into art. And sure, in a white supremacist society that views black people as objects in one form or the next, it makes sense.
Hence the social claim, one staked on material expression. One of Bradford’s techniques is to appropriate posters from his neighborhood, which he boils down to pigmented soup to create allover compositions. Inspired by the postwar French affichistes, they look like aerial maps—a wide-angle view, presumably, of black experience lived within a topography of discrimination.
Which is fine, though it’s unclear that Bradford succeeds as intended. The videos, especially one recalling his club-going youth, make a stronger case for his ideas, probably because the medium is inherently narrative. Bradford attempts storytelling, but to the extent that his paintings are meant to bear witness to the particulars, they’re too aestheticized to be anything but mute.