Mark Bradford ’s show “Cerberus” at Hauser & Wirth in London consists of nine paintings and a video. The video is Dancing in the Street, and has Martha and the Vandellas projected, recorded and filmed flickering across city blocks, fences and garages on a drive through Los Angeles. That’s Bradford’s city and maybe the place guarded by Cerberus, the Pit Bull aficionado’s wet dream—a multi-headed monster dog patrolling the gates of hell. Cerberus is also the title of the largest, and, I think, earliest, painting in the show. It’s another monster. In a show where we see city blocks mapped and represented both in paintings and in video, the width of this work is about the same as that between intersections around the corner on Regent Street. It’s a huge painting and creates a suitably immersive experience for the viewer. Fortunately, the generous acreage of Hauser & Wirth in London offers space to shift viewing distance—the eruptions of the surface in close-up resolve into a multi-layered representation of a dystopian megacity from across the room. If that is the “key” painting in the show, the others sample similar instances of material complexity and take off on colour in ways that contrast with those in Cerberus; there’s so much material that the surface of Scapegoat is really a low-relief, The path to the river belongs to animals features popping cerulean blues and Gatekeeper shows an out-oftime Lynchian motel decor pink.
The historical antecedents for Bradford’s work reach back about 60 years; they’re the key proponents of nouvelle réalisme, Jacques Villeglé, François Dufrêne and Raymond Hains among others; that moment in postwar European art where modernist collage collided with pop. Bradford’s surfaces are those of an affichiste after a vigorous pre-titleshot training camp in the Catskills— think ladders, scaffolding and glue by the gallon, small forests sacrificed for the weight of torn, sagging paper, ropes from the chandler’s yard, coils of electrical flex, hardware store twine—all adhering to the paintings. Actually, while some are left stuck on, others, in Bradfordian fashion, are pulled off to create intricate networks of lines on the surfaces. The painting Any Threat has a range of such marks, from skinny knifesharp to something approaching eavestrough width. The procedures establishing lines are interrupted in The path to the river belongs to animals by large swatches of dripping paint on paper. The constant interpolation of contrasting elements, the almost obsessive punctuation of the continuum of spatial plane, characterize Bradford’s work and underline the restlessness and implicit reference to violent disruption in his project.
Ernest Hardy, writing about Bradford’s work in 2010, had this on the affichistes: “[they] did not intervene or did so very slightly, on the surface of their appropriated posters, and always respected the posters’ identity as found street relics—Bradford takes them through a sophisticated transformative process.” Works like Raymond Hains’s Tôle from 1960 or François Dufrêne’s Fleur à gaz hardly seem characteristic of slight interventions. In fact, they seem like direct precursors of Mark Bradford’s paintings in the transformative commitment to working with the material that those artists employed. However, the collagists of nouvelle réalisme, despite their rigorous process of application and excavation of paper on surface, did, through their concentration on commercial postering as source, insist on direct appropriation; their focus was on harvesting and reusing specific materials. Those materials were the paraphernalia of commercial notification and advertising. Clearly, they had noticed the urban phenomenon of over-postering— the buildup of detritus on everything from a storefront to a telegraph pole—and, in part, from that they developed a whole aesthetic position.
Ernest Hardy mentioned the transformative process that differentiates Bradford’s work from that of the affichistes, and in the Hauser & Wirth show we see that process played out. If a Jacques Villeglé work makes us aware of the surfaces we see utilized in an urban landscape and how we may understand their potential, paintings like Cerberus or Sapphire Blue in this show expand the frame of reference considerably. Through scale, panoramic scope and a regular insinuation of grids, they address the pervasive spread and complication of the urban environment itself—if they’re someone’s nightmare (and the Hades guard dog of the title suggests that they are), it’s an urban planner’s—rather than the graphic designer’s bad dream that we might construe from a Villeglé work. The manifestation of the politics of commercialization and surplus in 1960s France seems almost quaint in comparison with the manifestation of the supersize, superabundant dystopian urbanism in Bradford’s paintings.
Martha Reeves and the Vandellas had a hit with “Dancing in the Street” in 1964, the year before one of the most intense and sustained periods of urban unrest in US history, the Watts Rebellion. Reeves and co-writer/producer Mickey Stevenson always refuted the notion that “Dancing in the Street” had a double meaning, insisting on it as a party song and not a soundtrack to social protest. The record was released just over a year before events in Los Angeles. That the song did become that soundtrack, for Los Angeles and other cities, has been comprehensively explored in Mark Kurlansky’s book, Ready for a Brand New Beat. Undoubtedly there was a perception that the song was a call to action—summer’s here and the time is right.… Mark Bradford’s juxtaposition of the video with the paintings contextualizes the whole experience for a visitor to this show. It’s remarkable to see and demonstrates Bradford’s assertion of the central place of community engagement in his art practice. He insists on “a foot in both camps”— Hauser & Wirth and Nickerson Gardens, perhaps. The ungraspable dimensions of the city, its propensity to tear itself apart architecturally, topographically and socially—that’s the referential experience these paintings offer, while the image of Martha flickers and dances across the avenues and boulevards. ❚
“Cerberus” was exhibited at Hauser & Wirth, London, from October 2 to December 21, 2019.
Martin Pearce is a painter and the director of the School of Fine Art and Music at the University of Guelph.