WALTHAM — Mark Bradford, the brilliant Los Angeles-based artist in his early 50s, has always been sensitive to the ways in which spaces can be politically charged by the people and things that move through them.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Bradford built a 64-foot ark from salvaged plywood fencing, covered in advertising posters, on the streets of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. He has made videos that, played in dread-inducing slow motion, spotlight situations that quiver with unresolved tension: a gay black man (Bradford is both) swaying his hips as he walks down a neglected street in LA; black girls dancing at a Martin Luther King Day Parade crawling with cops.
More commonly, Bradford brings commercial street posters salvaged from the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood where he works into upscale galleries across the country.
Given Bradford’s nose for the sociopolitical equivalent of static electricity, it’s a joy to see his latest body of work — a bold, body-shaking suite of paintings and sculptures and a massive wall installation, titled “Mark Bradford: Sea Monsters” — on display at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University.
As an act of political engagement, it’s hardly in the same league as the fall-out from Katrina, the aftermath of Rodney King, or the AIDS crisis. But it does feel like a cheek-stinging statement of intent — a sort of “Don’t bother to try that again” aimed at those who would have let the Rose perish back in 2009.
The Rose, of course, was put on life support when Brandeis University floated the idea of selling its collection as a way out of a deep financial hole. The museum’s future was still uncertain when a Mark Bradford survey opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston in 2010. That show, which established Bradford as one of the leading artists of his generation, was organized by Christopher Bedford for the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio, which sent it to Boston.
Fast-forward a couple of years. After a long period of limbo, during which lawsuits were filed and high-profile artists boycotted the Rose as its situation remained unresolved, Bedford was appointed to the Rose’s directorship. With a series of brilliant shows and smart decisions, he and his team have not only resuscitated the museum, but forced it back to the center of a national conversation about contemporary art.
Bedford has reconnected the Rose to the Brandeis campus, and renewed its traditionally strong relationships with living artists by appointing several to its board of advisers. Bradford is one of these, and his interest in the museum, as well as his warm working relationship with Bedford, are the forces behind this new show.
The exhibit includes five paintings, all made this year, each one 12 feet across and almost nine feet high. “Paintings” is not quite accurate, although it’s Bradford’s preferred description. They’re really hefty palimpsests of twine and colored paper, sliced, torn, painted, sanded back, and otherwise ravaged and distressed, to create panoramic vistas that are as much object as image.
With titles like “No Time to Expand the Sea,” “Tongue in the Middle of the Port,” and “A Siren Beside a Ship,” they evoke seascapes, maps, and the mysterious threat and allure of the unknown. “The Edge of Expansion,” with its broken field of glittering metallic paper, streaks of red, and waves of parallel black lines, evokes the limitless ocean at dusk. “No Time to Expand the Sea,” meanwhile, summons radiant sunbursts, and conjures, too, the late seascapes of J.M.W. Turner. Its airy pinks, whites, and blues are pasted down beside eruptions of red paper, inflaming its pulpy surface.
But Bradford’s works, unlike Turner’s, are abstract and allusive rather than representational. They’re complemented here by a series of large buoys covered in twine, caulk, and brightly colored papers. These boldly improvised sculptures, from a series called “Sea Pigs,” not only extend the maritime theme, but also, like the wrapped soccer balls and basketballs Bradford has made in the past, do much to energize and activate the gallery itself.
Here, they’re either suspended from the ceiling like punching bags in a boxing gym, left to loll on the floor, or propped in a corner, one on top of another. They both complement and reinforce the physical presence — the “thinginess” — of the paintings.
All of these works have their genesis, according to Bradford, in the show’s third element: an installation of 300 rectangular works made from salvaged billposters advertising “Sexy Cash” — quick, high-interest loans often resulting in the forfeiture of homes — layered on pieces of plywood, each 22 by 28 inches.
The installation, called “The King’s Mirror,” covers an entire wall. It’s visible through the glass front of the Rose’s Lois Foster Wing, where it will remain in place for a year. Bradford explained the process of its creation in a transcribed conversation that recently appeared in “Art in America”:
“I started thinking about how my studio is in South Central, and that probably this little company [offering “sexy cash”] is not in South Central but preying on the people there who are struggling, underwater with loans and mortgages. And that made me think about the conquistadors, the history of colonization, and about trading glass beads to Native Americans — all sorts of things. We make the cash sexy, and you want it.”
This in turn led Bradford to think, he continued, about “the ancient waterways that facilitated colonization — how they moved sexy cash along. Then about the mysteries of the water — how people thought the ocean was filled with monsters. And how when people think about South Central — the way it’s been depicted — it’s full of its own version of sea monsters.”
“It’s all kind of circular,” he concluded, “but it makes sense to me.”
It’s true, the logic is less than watertight. But this — in case it’s news to you — is how artists’ minds often work. Bradford has developed his remarkable idiom precisely by following instincts and thought experiments like these, by meshing his ideas and emotions with his medium, and letting the process take him wherever it will.
His works are in no way didactic. But they are massively pregnant with meanings, feelings, and a tremendous, tactile ambivalence. They’re rich in connotation, but poor in finality, poor in “closure.” No wall label will explain them away.
Pockmarked and punctuated with rips and tears, restored and ruined again, rubbed and sanded back to reveal vivid colors or dull, distressed grounds, they force you to stay in that place where thinking is still necessary, where the artist’s final act, just like his first, is impossible to discern.
Bradford, who has always enjoyed exploring the byways of abstract art in the 20th century, once told the art historian Richard Shiff that he had a fantasy about retracing the curving lines of Jackson Pollock’s 1943 breakthrough masterpiece, “Mural,” with string.
Having done this, he imagines, he would then pull the string out from the canvas, in a kind of recovery or reversal of Pollock’s original actions when painting it. In this way, Pollock’s legendary “gestures,” frozen and imperiously aloof on the valuable canvas, would somehow be restored to the volatile society and personal life from whence they sprang. They would dance again.
It’s a beautiful thought experiment. But it’s no stretch to say that, in his own oblique way, Bradford has been engaged for years in comparable processes: making and unmaking, writing and erasing, dancing and mourning, creating and destroying.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.