You might be surprised to know that this beautiful piece of work is actually inspired by a very ugly event from the past.
It’s called Scorched Earth and it’s by Mark Bradford. It was created in response to race riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma that ended with an African-American community being burned to the ground.
This was back in 1921, almost one hundred years ago. Before then, that part of town was known as a great place to live, where the people who lived there had mostly happy lives.
Mark’s work is a map. Not just of the place, exactly, with all the streets and buildings. But a map of the feelings the people might have felt at the time.
The way he uses color and materials symbolizes specific details of this event.
There are many layers of paint and paper that have been scraped away—that represents the time and the people who have been forgotten.
He uses the color black not only to show the burned houses and land, but also to show the color of the skin of the people affected.
The top of the canvas is bright red, like fire.
Like Scorched Earth, many of Mark’s other paintings are made from pieces of paper that he finds or reuses. He used to do hair at his mother’s beauty salon—so he used hairdressing papers in his paintings. He also used paint from the hardware store instead of the art supply store.
The layers in Scorched Earth create a topography that represents the deep psychological and physical ruins of a disappeared people and another time and place. In this work, Mark Bradford depicts an aerial map of an area that has been blacked out. The blackness of this land mass resonates on many levels: black as in the demographics of this neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at one time called “Negro Wall Street,” where many black-owned businesses thrived, until a race riot erupted in 1921 and the violence obliterated this unique area and its history; black, as the title suggests, meaning burnt or scorched; black as in redacted; and black as in nothingness.
Mark Bradford engages the discarded materials of urban life, often remnants of informal economic systems that arise out of necessity in the inner city. Bradford grew up in Los Angeles, the son of a family of hairdressers. From early on, he used the materials found around salons, including the paper rectangles used for permanents, bobby pins, and hair dyes. Over time, his art making grew to include video, installation, and photographs alongside his continued interest in printmaking and collage. Bradford describes his work: “Think about all the white noise out there in the streets: all the beepers and blaring culture—cell phones, amps, chromed-out wheels, and synthesizers. I pick up a lot of that energy in my work, from the posters, which act as memory of things pasted and things past. You can peel away the layers of papers and it’s like reading the streets through signs.”
In (Untitled) a.k.a. Gwen, 2005–6, Bradford develops a nuanced grid, recalling the energetic and often frenzied topology of a city map. Instead of delicate pencil work or precision painting of a formal modernist grid, the work is made from beauty salon tissue paper, handbills, and advertisements for jobs, lawyers, and other services posted in the neighborhoods around Bradford’s studio in South Central Los Angeles. While applying these materials, Bradford physically interacts with the work—sanding, tearing, bleaching, and weathering the surface. Bradford’s ephemeral materials not only come to wear the grit of outdoor signs and billboards but also reveal their temporary condition as objects that change according to the needs of those who employ them. In describing his practice, Bradford has quoted from Michel Laguerre’s The Informal City: “The informal arena provides a hidden space where one can stand to read the city as a social laboratory of everyday practice.”