Artist Mark Bradford is challenging the crime-ridden stereotype of South Central LA and inspiring young artistsacross the States.
We're off to the US for our next story. But first, some word association. If I say, "South Central LA", what springs to mind? Gangs? Crime? Women referred to as "hoes" and "bitches"? Well, maybe. Or you could try challenging these stereotypes. That's exactly what America's most exciting contemporary artist is doing. Here's Dateline's Yaara Bou Melhem.
REPORTER: Yaara Bou Melhem
For Mark Bradford, it's a fine line between creating art and destroying it. He admits he's not the most conventional artist.
MARK BRADFORD: I'm really a delicate guy. So these are all like brushes. Fat brush, thinner brush. Painters use brushes. I just use sanders.
His work is loud, sometimes almost violently made. He spends hours building it up, and then sands it away.
MARK BRADFORD: I'm actually a pretty easy-going guy. I'm not really rough. I'm direct. But I'm not really rough. And then I make this work that's, oh, goodness, sometimes I even think, "œMark! Gosh, so harsh sometimes!" It's not working that great. This painting has been a pain in the ass a little bit.
But he does pick up a brush when he wants to reinterpret. Like this painting, which is inspired by Islamic art.
MARK BRADFORD: I was just fascinated when I was in Morocco actually. All these artists were representing God, painting God, but not painting God. I thought, well, that's real abstract. That's really abstract.
Bradford is one of America's most prominent contemporary artists. His work, highly sought after, regularly fetches six figures. Contemporary art was once a mystery to him. But life's 'conversation', as he calls it, wasn't.
MARK BRADFORD: When I was a kid I would look at contemporary art and I didn't understand it. I'd be like, I don't get that. What is that? A chair in the middle of a room. I can get a chair and put it in the middle of a room. I didn't understand what the chair was referencing. Why he was putting it in the middle of the room. But what I understood when I was in school was that contemporary art talks about the conversation of our time and I thought conversations our times. I've been doing that my whole life.
His upbringing? Straight from the hood - South Central LA.
MARK BRADFORD: You're from Australia, but even in Australia you know what South Central is. Drive-bys, gangs, hip hop, Snoop Dog. It's figurative, it's been figurative for the last 25 years. No room for abstraction. South Centch, baby! How does one represent that without representing it?
This is where the infamous race riots of the '90s occurred, that shook America.
MARK BRADFORD: It was right here, started right here. Right at that gas station. You guys remember that scene, the truckie, Reginald and the guy hit him with that brick, it was right there. All this was just on fire, one building was standing and another was burning. It was surreal. It really was surreal. It went on for three days and they had to have the National Guard come and stand on all the corners. And it just became this kind of romantic, dangerous place of drugs, of rap music, of gangs. And it just stayed. You see things like that, those kind of billboards.
REPORTER: It's all tattered.
MARK BRADFORD: You can reach up there and get it down.
Bradford insists he and his art are products of his environment - literally.
MARK BRADFORD: Homes for sale - take over payments - no qualifing, no credit - so that means someone islosing theirhouse, they will take over your payment and give you a little bit of money and send you on your way.
These signs have become a signature of his work.
MARK BRADFORD: This is a good fence. This has always been a good fence. I think that consumerism, capital, how we spend our money, tells a lot about the culture at different times.
Back in his studio, dozens of what he calls "œcultural snapshots" of South Central LA.
MARK BRADFORD: These are always signs of the time. Look at that. 'Emergency Bankruptcy'. That's when times were good. '$500,000 90-day corporate credit.' That's when times were bad.
Nearing 50, the larger than life Bradford was a late bloomer. For his first 30 years he worked in his mother's hair salon. It's now his store room.
MARK BRADFORD: And these were the dryers. You put the girlies under the dryer, give them a magazine and wash the hair. It's like a shotgun. That's the city streets and there's going to be some big red dots where the women were found.
And it's black women that will be the focus of Bradford's next piece. Growing up in a beauty salon has made him passionate about their representation - or misrepresentation - as he sees it.
MARK BRADFORD: The first time I heard 'bitch' and 'ho', I did take it personally. Yeah, I do take it personally. I didn't like it. Every day I go to the shop and my mum is there. She's black and every one of her clients is black. We were young together, and their daughters. And then suddenly in modern culture? A bitch? I couldn't reconcile the popular culture imagery with what I saw day to day.
This piece is a representation of a billboard advertisement by the Los Angeles Police Department. It posted photos of women that had been found on a serial killer's computer. But it was the captions that came with it that concerned Bradford the most.
MARK BRADFORD: These people are not suspects. Why would you associate the women's photos with being suspects and not with being victims. If you use that type of language you should be very careful. You, in my feeling, have used a broad brush and thrown the hint of criminality over these women.
The LAPD then posted the photos on its website. Bradford was so disturbed he visited his local police station every day for a week.
MARK BRADFORD: And so I kept going back to the police station until they changed the website. Unfortunately, the website got 6 million hits and only dozens of phone calls. Well, 6 million hits, that's just voyeurs, that's pornography.
And it's not just cultural representations of black women that Bradford discusses through his work. One of his most famous pieces is what's called 'The Ark' - A 120-foot artwork that he made on the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans.
MARK BRADFORD: It was, I thought, a land that had just been washed away. For me, I thought, well, you have to have possibility for things to spring up again. And that was sort of one of those moments in my career that I will probably always remember. I did it very organically. But the more I worked in New Orleans, the more I worked on the project, it became really something that took on a larger scope. It sort of touched me emotionally, it touched me politically.
It's featuring as part of a 10-year collection of his works at an exhibition in Chicago. Also on display - a series of black paintings from the early stages of his career.
MARK BRADFORD: They're very dark, moody and translucent. I didn't do many and I always liked these paintings. I wish I kept one. Every time I see them, "œI always liked you!" That's how I talk to my work. When I see some other work I'll be like, "œYou know, I never liked you! From the beginning to end I never liked you! It was combatant from beginning to end!" Not to say I wasn't in it. It's just some relationships are easier than others.
I look at my work and it seems a little rough. Rough, rough around the edges! So I guess I look at the work and it seems a little bit more elegant. You know, it's always that person I wanna be.
It's opening night at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Mark has come a long way in the last 10 years and he's happy to give something back. He donated $100,000 last December to a charity for emerging artists. Moving into the theatrette, the art crowd gets to see another way he's supporting young artists. A one-year mentoring program between Mark and a Chicago high school art class.
ARTIST: My project is basically pictures of people's soles.
It includes a project that traces people's social status by the soles of their shoes. The project also challenged Mark's perception of what these art kids - as he calls them - were capable of.
MARK BRADFORD: These kids were pretty focused. I mean, the sole project, the difference between one sole and being taken to class in the car and... I just don't think I was processing that when I was in the 12th grade. Anywhere near that. So I think it kind of breaks down some of those myths about what is possible with young people.
It was an experience the students won't be forgetting any time soon.
ART STUDENT: Amazing. Fantastic. It has been - I could describe it as a life-changing experience. He talked to us about our communities and, you know, maybe being in such an unsafe environment but being able to cope with that and being able to penetrate through that and to finish. To finish the things that we started, don't let the things that are in our lives, the circumstances that are in our lives stop us.
Mark is determined to inspire individuality.
MARK BRADFORD: And that they learn to say, "œWell, we got five black boys in the room and they all different." I guess there is no "œkeep it real" or as a black.
The night's a success. Mark says he looks forward to the next adventure.
REPORTER: So what now?
MARK BRADFORD: Well, I'll go back to my studio in Los Angeles and I'll start working on work. I'll receive emails from something somewhere saying, "œWould you like to? Are you interested in? And there it goes, there it goes! I always look at the subject line to see if it's going to be something. It's like a magic carpet ride. Just look at the subject line if it's something kind of exotic. There it goes!
YALDA HAKIM: Yaara Bou Melhem hanging out with the talented and very talkative Mark Bradford. If you want to see more about Mark, his intriguing paintings and social projects, go to our website. You'll also find our special behind the scenes video, where Yaara chats about her time in South Central LA. That's at sbs.com.au/dateline.
YAARA BOU MELHEM
Original Music composed by VICKI HANSEN
19th June 2011