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From hairdresser to abstract artist: A studio visit with Mark Bradford

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Artist Mark Bradford stands in front of a piece in his South LA studio.
John Horn/KPCC
Artist Mark Bradford stands in front of a piece in his South LA studio.

The Frame's John Horn visits with Mark Bradford inside his South LA studio to learn how he want from hairdresser to one of LA's most recognizable contemporary artists.

Mark Bradford's work is slowly taking over the city of Los Angeles. His critically acclaimed show “Scorched Earth” is up right now at The Hammer museum and his massive installment at the Los Angeles International Airport, a piece he calls “Bell Tower,” was recently installed above the TSA screening area in the Tom Bradley Terminal. 

Despite having grown up in and around Los Angeles and earning a Master’s in Fine Arts from the California Institute of the Arts, up until now he’s been much better known outside California. In fact, the show at The Hammer is his first solo exhibit in L.A.

Earlier this week we visited with Bradford in his cavernous studio, which was formerly a warehouse for a welding company. It's located in an area of town Bradford refers to as "SLAIT," or:

The studio is located under the flight path of LAX. In addition to the sound of low-flying jets, our day in Bradford's studio is punctuated by the rumble of semis and the horns of run-down food trucks.

Outside, one of Bradford’s assistants, Diego Lopez, used a blowtorch and emulsion solution to burn the text from a loan advertisement onto black paper. It was an ad for a predatory lender, the kind of strip mall outfit that charges exorbitant interest rates to low-income borrowers. Bradford explains:

Installation view of "Mark Bradford: Scorched Earth," Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, June 20–September 27, 2015. Photo by Brian Forrest.

But Bradford doesn't simply pull things from the area and incorporate them into his practice. He's also made an effort to fit himself into the rhythm of his neighborhood.

However, Bradford has been connected to the South L.A. community since the beginning, really. He was raised by a single mother in the West Adams neighborhood, and he would go on to work at his mom’s Leimart Park hair salon. It was in that hair salon that Mark Bradford began repurposing things for his art — one man's trash, as it were.

"Dead Hummingbird," 2015. Mixed media on canvas. 84 x 108 in. (213.4 x 274.3 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Joshua White.

Bradford says spending his younger years styling hair in his mother’s salon informed his art in other ways too. He says what he accomplishes now with a brush and house paint is very similar to what he did with scissors and hair dye.

Of course, while there might be some similarities between the world of hair salons and the art world, there are some stark differences. For instance, deadlines — you know when you have to finish a haircut, because there's generally someone else waiting in line. But deciding when a piece of art is finished...well, that's another matter.

"Finding Barry," 2015. Excavated wall painting. Installation view of Mark Bradford: Scorched Earth, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, June 20–September 27, 2015. Photo by Brian Forrest.

Walking around Bradford’s studio, one notices the test for his AIDS mapping project called

At The Hammer, it’s what greets you when you walk into the museum: a giant map of the United States that Bradford made by carving through layers of old paint on a big wall. Elsewhere in his studio, there was a giant 25 by 20 foot mixed media piece he was finishing up for Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Bradford is not only one of L.A.’s most in-demand contemporary artists, he may be the nation’s. His pieces can sell for millions of dollars each. But Bradford still thinks the idea of contemporary art emerging out of South Central is a new one.

"Lights and Tunnels," 2015. Mixed media on canvas. 84 x 108 in. (213.4 x 274.3 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo by Joshua White.

Growing up, Bradford, didn’t feel like there were enough African-American artists represented in the contemporary art world. And that’s something he wanted to change.

Does Bradford have an answer to his own question?
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