Did you spot Mark Bradford at the comedy club?
This is how the stand-up routines of Eddie Murphy and other comedians fed into the LA artist’s work
In 1987, the Los Angeles artist Mark Bradford attended an Eddie Murphy show. Superficially, some might say that Bradford had a few things in common with the comedian. They were of the same age being born in 1961, both were African American and both had a patchy relationship with their fathers.
Yet Murphy’s stand-up routine at the time was notable for one crucial and horrible difference. “When Eddie Murphy got up there and started talking about faggots, and everybody in the auditorium laughed it was rage,” Bradford recalls in our new Contemporary Artist Series book.
Today Bradford is best known for his painting, yet he is also a skilled filmmaker and performer, and he stored up that rage for almost three decades, before expressing it most fully in his 2015 installation, Spiderman. This is how curator Connie Butler describes the work in our new book.
“In a room, dark except for a lone spotlight and the haze of a smoke machine, a male voice rants and raves, seeming to inhabit a masculinity so constricted by its own repression that it emerges from the other end of the intimate soliloquy, transformed. The disembodied voice is both fluid and incoherent, garbled through a speaker system that seems dated, the voice bootleggy and fragile as it vaults forth in the darkness. The video installation, or more precisely an audio work with subtitles projected on the wall, is brilliant and brilliantly topical.”
Bradford had planned to perform the piece himself in a red leather jacket like the one Murphy wore in his 1983 Delirious video. Yet as he explored and developed his character, it expanded beyond one single impersonation.
“What originated as a desire to inhabit and reclaim Murphy’s oppressive hetero-aggression morphed again into a persona far more nuanced and memorable, a figure whose vulnerability is palpable and whose identity is fleeting,” writes Butler.
The work isn’t a simple critique of Eddie Murphy; Bradford, who had, as Butler notes, participated in the drag-club scene in Paris and then Los Angeles, and played around with gender, and with the heritage of African-American stand-up.
"Spiderman in its final form is a poignant mash-up of identities," she writes. "Long a student of the history of black stand-up comedy and its relationship to gender, tracking its evolution from Flip Wilson’s female alter ego ‘Geraldine’, to Richard Pryor, to Dave Chappelle, Bradford was interested in making a woman the centre of his narrative.
His initial notion to re-perform as Murphy, to inhabit and repopulate the aggressive heteronormativeness of stand-up comedy, shifted when the artist cast a woman as the baseline persona. Confused and desirous of somewhere to put her rage, she hallucinates herself into masculinity, willing her power to overtake the sexed body and become something real."
Some of Bradford’s gags, such as “They had my friend Gerald so scared he was sticking birth control pills in his ass. He said if it can stop a baby, it might stop HIV” that are simultaneously offensive, funny and incredibly sad.
While Murphy’s routines reassured ticketholders of their gender, Bradford’s disembodied, superhuman work pushes listeners beyond one single point of view. “If we can’t see the subject,” Butler concludes, “we are left with our own projections about what that body might mean.”
For a better grasp of a fascinating contemporary artist, order a copy of our Mark Bradford book here.