Viewers could go fishing all afternoon and not find all the oars recurring in Radcliffe Bailey’s nearly 20-foot-long painting “Uprooted.” Or lose themselves in the gorgeous indigo and emerald waves of “Western Current,” a 75-inch-long mixed media piece on paper, without pausing to think about the symbolism of all the collaged photographs of African sculptures crowded onto the boat plying those waters.
“Radcliffe Bailey: Memory as Medicine,” an expansive and important exhibit of the Atlanta artist’s work that opens June 26 at the High Museum of Art, submerges visitors in aesthetic pleasure to such an extent that the thought undergirding the paintings, sculptures, installations and glass and found object pieces easily could go unconsidered. But as sumptuous as Bailey’s art is, the exhibit’s 37 pieces are all dense with meaning.
The most comprehensive exhibit yet by the 42-year-old artist whose works are fixtures in collections of museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, “Memory as Medicine” deals with heady issues: the stain of slavery’s Middle Passage, the transcendence of jazz and classical music and the thick blood of ancestry.
The show, which will tour to San Antonio’s McNay Art Museum and the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, was organized by the High’s African art curator Carol Thompson with the intent of documenting the long influence that continent’s art and art-making has had on Bailey.
His work had referenced Mende sculpture from Sierra Leone even before Bailey traced his maternal ancestry to that very ethnic group and country in 2006. That discovery led to a series of pieces that explored his DNA in greater depth.
Yet the soft-spoken artist, who moved with his family to Atlanta in 1972 and attended the old Atlanta College of Art next door to the High, nonetheless cautions that his Africa-inspired art-making detailed in “Memory as Medicine” is “just one chapter out of many.” He traversed a solar system of new ideas, for instance, during a recent show at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York, “Outer Spaceways.”
Like the piano keys that stand in for waves in the room-sized installation “Windward Coast,” Bailey appears in endless motion, digging deep into cultural and familial roots and charging toward an uncharted future. As he moved through the exhibit during the final stages of installation one recent afternoon, he discussed the pieces, created from 1993 to this year, and the intellectual quest and life experiences out of which they were forged.
On his feeling about being the subject of a major High exhibit: “I remember going to school and meeting some of the first artists like Jacob Lawrence here at the High. So it’s interesting … now having this opportunity to show at home.
“I feel like it’s early in my life, and that’s great and I feel honored … just to have the opportunity to show at the museum. At this moment with all the things going on in the world — the crazy economy, the changing climate — it feels like a great moment for me, a great opportunity, especially since my parents are still alive.”
On the dialogue he hopes to strike with family, friends, strangers: “Openings for me [are special], because my work is a lot about family stuff. I’ve never been the kind of artist who wants to just go show in New York, and you never see his or her family members around, and only art world people talking to art world people. For me, it’s always been about having conversations with everyone. I don’t want to make work that’s above, that speaks a certain way that a common person couldn’t understand. I’m more concerned with having that conversation … just point blank, you know.”
On what drew him to piano keys as an art material: “There was a piano shop in my [southwest Atlanta] neighborhood, I just noticed one day and walked in. There were pianos stacked on top of pianos, and they had a certain age to them. It just seemed like beauty in decay. I thought, ‘Wow!’ So I collected parts of pianos.
“And I needed a symbol, something to connect with music, because music was always a part of my work. When I’m in the studio, I’m always listening to music … classical like Duke Ellington, jazz people like Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, real out there [stuff]. Some of my early experiences of seeing [cosmic jazz pioneer] Sun Ra here in Atlanta, at Piedmont Park and over in Little 5 Points, seeing his band [the Arkestra] come out, and that was art to me. I’m still in my mind going, ‘How can I make that?’ ”
On the early magnetic pull of art-making: “My mom [Brenda Bailey] pretty much pushed art on me as a kid. She was a schoolteacher in Atlanta Public Schools and said, ‘I just have a different type of kid.’ She was guided by her aunt [Corinne Knight], a painter who lived in Philly and Westchester [N.Y.] and knew a lot of people, including the Wyeths.
“We’d go visit my grandparents in Virginia during Christmases and we’d sit at [the] table and my mom and her sisters would talk about what they were dealing with in their lives. And I remember sitting at the table as a kid, just doodling and drawing. My mom would always give me paper. My great aunt would sit there too, and that really triggered me in a way toward art.
“It wasn’t really a thing that was pushed in school, though I always had great art teachers. I came to the Woodruff Arts Center to Saturday classes as a kid, so it was always a part of my life.
“But the true art teacher I had was my mother. She led me to the well.”
On complaints in the art community that the High hasn’t done enough to showcase the local scene: “I don’t see it. Museums have different ways of operating, have different goals.
“I’ve learned a lot from this museum, learned a lot about all different types of art. I can’t really ask the museum to do what contemporary art centers do. I can’t ask them to be a savior. I think the museum should basically teach, show, share.”
On what he wanted to be before he wanted to be an artist: “To play baseball. I really did, real bad. I was a catcher. I had a good arm and I could throw someone out from my knees. It was a totally different position than I would play in school, where I would sit in the back of the class [at Benjamin E. Mays High] watching everyone. Baseball, I made the calls.”
On the sculpture “Cleanup II,” a 108-inch-tall bat that leans against a gallery wall: “I always felt ballplayers were so large to me. I was a fan of Hank Aaron. When I played Little League, he was in the neighborhood, and I remember seeing him a few times as a kid. Whenever you have the opportunity to see an artist like Jacob Lawrence or a ballplayer like Hank Aaron, you can foresee it. You have the opportunity to think, ‘Wow, this could actually happen [to me].’ (Aaron, in fact, is a member of the Radcliffe Bailey Guild, which has raised funds to support the High exhibit.)
“I was born in ’68, so I was one of the first generations to deal with integration. I grew up in a community that was mostly African-American. And there’s a contrast between that and where we were in New Jersey, which was mostly small towns and farmland. In Atlanta, it was a whole different thing. ‘An African-American mayor? Mayor [Maynard] Jackson … wow!’”
“Radcliffe Bailey: Memory As Medicine”
Opens today and runs through Sept. 11. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; until 8 p.m. Thursdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. $18; $15, students and seniors; $11, ages 6-17; free, children 5 and younger and members. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-4444, www.high.org.
Radcluffe Bailey discusses particular pieces …
“Windward Coast,” 2009-2011: The 30-foot-square installation, in which a glittery black sculptural head is isolated amid a shifting sea of piano keys, evokes the “physical and psychological rupture of the Middle Passage” and is “arguably the most important work Radcliffe Bailey has created to date,” writes “Memory as Medicine” curator Thompson in the exhibit catalog. The artist said a childhood memory of fishing in the Delaware Bay with his father, also named Radcliffe, inspired the piece as well: “He’d take us way out in the water until you couldn’t see land at a point. You felt small.” Finally, there’s music, a never-ending wellspring for Bailey, at the work’s core: “I always think the common thread between all the people around the world is music. I’m thinking about all the piano keys and all the music that’s actually come from the pianos, each piano kind of fused together.”
“Notes from Elmina, III,” 2011: The title of a series of six small (12-by-9-inch) mixed media (gouache, collage and ink on paper) pieces refers to the Elmina Castle, a prominent stop on the Atlantic slave trade route built by Portugal in the late 1400s in present-day Ghana. Bailey painted the pieces on pages of classical music notation paper, “thinking about it almost like a score to a movie,” the artist said. The first work in the series includes a depiction of the historic castle, while others place collaged West African sculptures at the center of the compositions as a metaphor for the people who lost their freedom. The surprising use of bright colors is likely purposeful. “Sometimes when things are talked about in terms of the slave trade, it’s almost like people go straight for the gut-wrenching pain, and I’ve really tried to look at it from a whole different way,” Bailey said. “I’m interested in dealing with the conflict, but also getting beyond it.”
“Uprooted,” 2002: Radiating from a collaged photograph of three boatmen — Bailey is uncertain if they’re from the Southeast coast, West Africa or the Caribbean — this monumental painting on wood panels “can be read as a symbolic map of the Black Atlantic Diaspora,” curator Carol Thompson writes in the exhibit catalog, “as it traces a complex network of interlocking watery paths.” When he graduated from college, Bailey’s grandmother gave him dozens of family photographs that fueled his early professional art-making. He’s gone on to collect more than 400. When he shops antiques places, he’s not just browsing and bargaining but “creating art as I walk through.” That kind of mental exercise can continue for days after he acquires a photograph or object. In the case of the photo central to “Uprooted,” “one of the things I pick up on is the shape of the paddles. And I’m thinking as I am making this piece [that it should be] all based on the paddles.”
Bailey on the exhibit title “Memory as Medicine”: “I’ve always felt like the only way I can heal myself throughout certain things is to go back through my memory, learn from memory. I think a lot of that was based on these [19th-century figures] from the Kongo … that held medicine at their centers, or stomachs. Early on in my work, I would always have a photograph of them within the center with a glass in front of it. Glass was always said to reflect things that were bad and evil, and it was almost like a protector. And as time went along, I started making these pieces that were very boxlike. When people look at them they think, ‘Oh, those are some real big frames,’ but they’re actually constructed as medicine cabinets. The idea was, you know, you go into your medicine cabinet to find something to heal you. And I always felt like my memory was my medicine.”
Programming in conjunction with “Memory as Medicine”
For more programming info visit www.high.org.
Also opening June 26