Looking at the title wall for Mark Bradford's exhibition at the Wexner Center is sort of like looking at an archeological dig.

Looking at the title wall for Mark Bradford's exhibition at the Wexner Center is sort of like looking at an archeological dig.

Instead of paints, screens or stencils, his name has been peeled, chipped, stripped and dug out of the wall, colored by the old layers of paint that have boasted over 20 years' worth of past shows.

It's a fitting opening act for the first career survey of work by Bradford, a Los Angeles-based artist with a quickly ascending career. His abstract paintings, which use scrapers, paper, graphite and string as their brushstrokes, have made him the recipient of both a 2009 MacArthur Genius Grant and the Wexner Center's Residency Award in Visual Arts.

The exhibition includes pieces created between 2000 and 2010, and it's organized by key concepts and materials instead of chronologically. It's "an attempt to render a mind," according to curator Christopher Bedford.

Each canvas invites a closer look to try and unravel the mystery of how it was made. These are meticulous, layered pieces, often grand in scale. Bradford gives them evocative, surprising titles like "Disappear Like a Dope Fiend" or "A Truly Rich Man Is One Whose Children Run Into His Arms Even When His Hands are Empty."

"I've always been an abstract painter," Bradford said. "I've never looked to the figurative, even as a child."

Bradford was raised by a hairdresser and once worked as one himself, and several of his pieces incorporate hundreds of the end papers used to give perms - with scorched edges.

Working daily in his South Central Los Angeles studio, he's also harvested billboard paper and fliers from surrounding areas, where the only change of scenery in the burned-out empty lots tends to be new advertisements.

"My studio is far away from the central gaze of power," Bradford said. "You could not do what I do in Upper Arlington."

The more than 22-foot long "James Brown is Dead" comes from one of those lots. Its foundation - about 10 years' worth of billboard signs layered on each other - was snagged in broad daylight by Bradford and his sister.

"We just walk onto the site, start to chisel it way down and start peeling and rolling," he said. "They always think I'm doing public service, never that I'm an artist."

As his career progressed, Bradford also decided to use his work to disavow any romantic notions about it.

"I embody a lot of sexy stereotypes - African-American, working in South Central, uses paper from the streets," he says. "So I look for ways around the stereotypes."

He began printing up his own billboard paper to use in his pieces, while other drawings were printed as entire sheets of graphite.

Bradford's Wexner Center residency funded a new body of work, included as an installation called "Pinocchio is on Fire." It picks apart the archetypes of the black male, looking at the infamous puppet as his father's imperfect creation.

"Pinocchio" begins in an inviting room papered in delicate black tissue and solid white lines, a soundtrack of female vocals pleading to "Tell the Truth." Far from the ideas of athlete, rapper or reverend, curator Bedford says the work suggests, "a new black male body could be abstraction."

Apart from being a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon, Bradford's show is a boon for the Wexner Center's national reputation. It'll travel on a multi-city tour for two years when it leaves in August, replete with its locally produced catalog and a rich educational microsite at pinocchioisonfire.org.