ICA features emerging artist Mark Bradford’s ‘found art’

The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA), located off the Silver Line on Boston's waterfront, is all too often forgotten because of Tufts' partnership with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The architecture of the building, successfully created to be a compromise between artistic reflection and civic space, includes two 9,000−square−foot galleries, multiple film viewing rooms and a waterfront cafe — all overlooking the harbor through entirely clear, glass walls.

Created by architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the ICA was a project that established their careers in the United States. More importantly, though, their innovative design has made the ICA one of the most comfortable, peaceful and reflective places to view art in the Boston area.

But if the calming white and glass interior design isn't enough to persuade you to visit, then the art surely will be. Devoted entirely to artists currently working and exhibiting, the ICA's exhibited works are not only relevant but burgeoning. Visitors get to view art as art is happening. They are witnessing pieces of transient history as they're being created and exhibited for the public.

Enter Mark Bradford, an increasingly well−known contemporary abstract artist based out of South Central Los Angeles. Bradford's work currently occupies one of the 9,000−square−foot galleries at the ICA, with pieces ranging from his early work in 2000 to more recent pieces from last year. Similar to the transient nature of contemporary art itself, Bradford never allows his work to rest on a single subject matter or style.

Bradford twists abstract art, which is generally meant to be impressionistic and left to the interpretation of the viewer, by filling it with latent meaning and social references, specifically ones that refer to being African−American or, less frequently, to his sexuality.

The exhibit, which moves chronologically from his earliest to more recent work, begins with a piece titled "Enter and Exit the New Negro" (2000), a "painting" that demonstrates some of his earliest artistic styles — most notably, using materials in his art that he has found in his everyday life.

Taking end papers used for perming hair from his mother's salon, Bradford singed and layered the white pieces of paper carefully on top of one another so that they appear to be brush strokes. In minimalist fashion, the creamy grid−like image shows Bradford's belief that art should be composed primarily of products that are found — or, in other words, the belief that you don't have to go to an art supply store to be an artist.

The piece also demonstrates his trend of using paper products in his work.
In an interview with the New England Journal of Aesthetic Research, Bradford explained, "The reason I use paper is because paper is so unforgiving. It's opaque. It doesn't give it up. … Paper is just hard. You've really got to struggle with it to lift it. And sometimes it doesn't. And it demands its physicality."

And indeed, many of Bradford's works feature painstaking detail either carved or sanded into layers and layers of paper. The paper itself is also usually something that he has found, whether in the form of end papers or advertisements and flyers littering South Central. The posters, which range from topics like DNA paternity testing to foreclosure and credit problems, further emphasize Bradford's effort to bring a social context to his work.

Perhaps Bradford's most highly featured and referenced piece is a vivid and striking work titled "Scorched Earth" (2006), which was created in response to the war in Iraq. The subject matter, however, does not take the viewer as far as the Middle East, but instead keeps the context at home by referencing a largely under−publicized 1921 disaster in Tulsa, Okla.

In a part of town occupied by wealthy black merchants, dubbed "Black Wall Street," white supremacist groups began a race riot that led to the burning and destruction of approximately 30 city blocks. The work features mainly a red and black center, with white squares of paper arching over the top left side and closing in on the dark middle. Although not a depiction of an actual map, the picture reads like an aerial view of a city.

Instead of simply abstracting a universal idea, Bradford has abstracted an actual event and brought it forth into a current social context.

Bradford's style is ever−changing, and his work is not limited to papering canvases. He has also created multiple sculptures, such as a gigantic paper ark in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, as well as films and multimedia installations.

The exhibit offers a unique opportunity to be able to view such a comprehensive collection of an artist's work, especially at a gallery like the ICA, where the layout and design ease the process of exploring the work of an artist with an immense variety of creative outlets.