Mark Bradford’s "Scorched Earth" at L.A.’s Hammer Museum

Test 3, 2015. Mixed media on canvas. 62 x 48 in. Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Joshua White.

A must-see exhibition for our turbulent times.

With the near constant headlines of racial tensions boiling over around the country this year, Mark Bradford’s show of new paintings at Los Angeles’ Hammer Museum has never been timelier. This weekend, the MacArthur Grant–winning artist will sit down with Anita Hill to discuss the issues of race, identity, and politics that undergird his critically lauded body of work. If you’re in L.A., it’s the perfect excuse to spend an afternoon at the Hammer taking in the 12 new paintings and multimedia installation that comprise Bradford’s first solo museum show in his native city. In fact, if your travels bring you to L.A. at all before September 27th, Scorched Earth is an essential stop on any art itinerary.

Raised in L.A.’s historically African American West Adams neighborhood, Bradford took the hard road to international acclaim, working at his mother’s Leimert Park hair salon while taking art classes at Santa Monica Community College and then CalArts. Returning to his mother’s salon, Bradford found inspiration in the piles of end papers used for perms and started building intricate, abstract canvasses out of the everyday materials around him. Soon Bradford became famous for this layering and excavation approach, slathering material onto a canvass just to strip it away and reveal a work within.

The first piece the viewer approaches typifies that practice: For Finding Barry, Bradford scraped away the remnant layers of the 29 murals that various artists had painted on the main wall of the Hammer’s lobby gallery over the years to create a 21 ft. tall map of the United States, each state bearing the number per 100,000 of diagnosed AIDS patients in 2009, the aged data intended to leave one in a state of query over where the AIDS crisis stands today. Other abstract paintings of cell-like structures that could double as bullet holes provide visceral, raw commentary on latent violence in social fabric. His performance piece Spiderman, an inversion of Eddie Murphy’s notoriously homophobic “Delirious” Routine, disarms through dissonant humor. (Bradford’s parody nails Murphy’s tone perfectly while turning the homophobia on its head.)

The most stirring works might be a series of three massive, untitled canvasses in the main gallery. Made by sticking ink-soaked sheets of paper on canvass, then ripping them off, they simultaneously evoke both Romantic landscape painting and the epic canvasses of macho mid-century Abstract Expressionists. From a distance, you could mistake them for the plywood boarding of an abandoned construction site, mottled by faded strips of tape and assorted detritus, but up close, the monumental patterns hum with a raw beauty that forces you to reconsider the neglected urban landscapes one drives past everyday as deep wells of vibrant energy that can’t be ignored any longer.

Mark Bradford's Scorched Earth is on view until September 27th at 10899 Wilshire Blvd.; 310-443-7000; hammer.ucla.edu.