Mark Bradford’s imposing abstracts

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Making a statement: Mark Bradford’s “Scorched Earth” refers to a race riot in Tulsa
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After seeing the abstract paintings of artist Mark Bradford, you might never look at a scrap of paper the same way again.

“Mark Bradford” is being presented at two locations: the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through June 17 and at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts through May 27.

The exhibition includes more than 50 paintings, collages, sculptures and other mixed-media pieces by Bradford, winner of a MacArthur Fellowship in 2009.

Bradford was born in Los Angeles and keeps his studio in the Leimert Park neighborhood where he used to work at his mother’s beauty parlor. He uses permanent-wave end papers in his art, along with twine, billboard paper, wrapping paper, old posters and other scavenged materials. He soaks paper to separate it. He caulks and he sands. He layers and reworks and distresses.

Some works, such as “Bread and Circuses,” read like aerial maps. Others, such as “Smokey” — as in singer-songwriter Smokey Robinson — are quiltlike in their gentleness and geometric beauty.

“What fascinates me about surface is the way in which paper creates depth, but at the same time it still has its singular form,” Bradford says in an interview in the exhibition catalog. “It’s one complete thing on top of another. You’re not mixing black and white paint to get a third thing.”

Bradford does not paint in the conventional way, with brushes or expensive oils. If he buys materials — including paint — Home Depot might be his first stop. His art is fresh, stimulating and politically charged.

“Scorched Earth” refers to the 1948 race riot in Tulsa, Okla. “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You)” is a commentary on how members of the black community are often unnoticed by the white community until an act of violence makes the news.

Bradford reworks posters he finds in poor and working-class communities. One untitled piece asks, “Is This Child Yours? DNA Testing (Court Certified).”

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is featuring three major works by Bradford related to his piece called “Mithra.” The arklike public sculpture, a response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, was installed in the Lower Ninth Ward for Prospect.1, the first New Orleans biennial.

At 6-foot-8 tall, Bradford cuts an imposing figure. He’s sometimes mistaken for Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant. Near the entrance to the exhibition is a piece called “Kobe I Got Your Back.” It’s a basketball covered in papier-mache, painted black but for a few exposed seams.

Bradford is an engaging and dynamic person, and it’s worth attending the artist’s talk if you can. He will be speaking at SFMOMA at 7 p.m. May 3.

IF YOU GO

Mark Bradford

Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art,151 Third St., S.F.

When: 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. daily, except closed Wednesdays and until 8:45 p.m. Thursdays; through June 17

Cost: $11 to $18; free for children 12 and under and half-price after 6 p.m. Thursdays

Contact: (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org

Note: Tickets to SFMOMA also cover entry to the Bradford show at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., S.F., through May 27.

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