Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Radcliffe Bailey at the Davis Museum, Wellesley College, reviewed by Damon Lehrer

Radcliffe Bailey, “Memory as Medicine,” at the Davis Museum of Art, Wellesley College, February 15- May 6, 2012.

My problem with Radcliffe Bailey’s work is his craft. The ideas he alludes to are grand, sweeping historical memories of the middle passage and of slavery in the new world, and the beauty and austerity of the museum space enshrines these ideas quite effectively, especially in the large room where his ocean of piano keys lies, punctuated with a lone, doomed man. That piece is a lovely and succinct (as much as the keys from 400 pianos can be) evocation of the despair and lonely pain I associate with the subject. The strong smell of sandalwood or cedar given off perhaps by the wood of the keys, or perhaps pumped in for yet another sensory experience layered onto to the visual art (there’s also a soundtrack) helps to capture the imagination.

But in his other pieces- wall mounted box/collage/painting objects and more traditionally matted gouache/collage pieces on paper- there’s just a dearth of craft that for me fails the flea market test. That’s the idea that I like to subject art objects to: if I saw it in a flea market unframed, would it announce itself as a special object? The works on paper in the “Elmina” series- gouache and collage on sheets of music- fail this test. They have the haphazard feel of high school projects. The only visual information specific enough to make meaning comes from collaged on magazine images of African sculpture, but absent the context of the show, even this addition of imagery would simply be too general. These pieces epitomize a sense of impermanence in the work that seems unintentional, and that left me wanting.

There were a few pieces that grabbed me, and they grabbed me because of the transformation of materials that is really at the center of the crafts of sculpture and painting- “Self-Portrait” in encaustic and sugarcane was viscerally engaging before I knew the title or the materials used. It is a kind of Pompeian entombment in thick black wax of sugarcane stalks, matted together and suggesting internal mysterious spaces behind what we could see, inside a black box.

I’ll close with the observation that perhaps art is related to dating in this way: the concepts and ideas in an art piece are akin to a “good personality” in a first date, while good craft is akin to physical attractiveness. In art as in dating, while it’s not really acceptable to admit it, we are as seduced by beautiful craft as we are by attractive people. In both instances the quality of the idea, and of the personality, is something that will ultimately be necessary to a meaningful relationship. But visual art is of course not a human relationship; and is in the end a lot simpler. In a great piece of visual art, the visual experience is nearly everything- the place where both beauty and meaning magically coexist.

I’d like also to mention a coda to my experience at the Davis- and it was due to the remarkable way that the museum is laid out. The mixing of time periods and genres, which seems to be the curatorial intention, is a great and daring way to allow for more direct comparisons between diverse objects, objects that might share little besides the fact that they are considered art by someone. Daring because it empowers the viewers, risking that objects will seem weak or strong in new ways in comparison to one another. On the other hand, placing a Cezanne painting in the same small room as a Joseph Beuys assemblage also tends to falsely equate the two, particularly for someone new to looking at art.

In any case, walking down the stairs that bisect the museum from top to bottom and side to side, I briefly passed two vastly different paintings in the identical spot, separated by one floor. On the third floor was a Dutch or Flemish painting from 1500 of a grimacing man with the title “Laughing Fool,” which felt like the distillation of an artistic era, a mix of the bawdy, clerical, and comedic spirit that flowed most famously through the work of Bosch and Bruegel. On the second floor, a painting just about the same size by Jackson Pollock- also representative of an era, the quintessential abstract expressionist artist, potentially the “greatest living painter” of his time according to Life Magazine. For me the comparison is summed up nicely as I try to recall what I can about the two paintings. I remember the title and content of the Flemish painting but not the artist’s name, while the most distinct thing in my memory about the Pollock is the name “Pollock.” For me, it too is a painting that nicely sums up an era of artists-as-brands, to be bought for the status that owning or prizing them conveys, an era which we still occupy.

Damon Lehrer

Monday, February 27, 2012

Radcliffe Bailey at the Davis Museum, Wellesley College

This is a post sent in by BFAC member David Williams-Bulkeley, some of whose lovely work you can see on meetup.com/Boston-Figurative-Art-Center, in response to a BFAC suggested visit to the Radcliffe Bailey exhibition at the Davis Museum, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA. The visit was made on Sunday, February 26, 2008, the exhibit is up for another month or two:

What a collection and what a fabulous space, one of the very best we agreed. Having not heard of Mr. Radcliffe Bailey we went in with an open heart and mind as you do with such exhibitions and as often as not came away with mixed emotions. Beginning with an installation artist's dream scenario of a Romeo and Juliet parapet from which to view your large artwork we thought we were off to a good start. From Juliet's perspective we were greeted by a writhing, moving striated mass of chair legs which at once reminded us of river logging, one of man's great but controversial natural production lines. Being our maiden visit and with stairs either side of us going both down and up to other galleries of art, we were pulled with excitement to move further down and investigate. We are always loathe to read an artist's description of their pieces not through idleness but for the fear of spoiling our own deluded imaginations. So saddened that we had actually lost the feeling of movement in the work on Romeo's level we were this time forced to swallow some complacency and actually read the description. We discovered that the piece was about music, the African slave trade and that the wood used was from over 400 pianos. If he wanted to dismantle the sound machine and reinsert it into his art then where were the ebony pieces ? Yes, we were reminded of the terrible tragedies that hurricanes and tsunamis can create but what else could this now be about ?

Hoping that some of that music might flow through to other pieces we were encouraged by the breadth of materials used but were eventually let down by the relentless textbook art college approach to each subject which culminated with a model ship that had been coated in black crystals and had a jaunty top hat perched on top. The collages took us back to the theme of African heritage but surprised us with their similarities to the collages of Peter Beard.

Typical painter's reproach you might say, but it is hard to make a truly arresting piece of art !

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

As nothing has been written

As nothing has been written here in quite a while, I thought it might be nice to summarize the progress of the center over the past months, for the shareholders, as it were.

The organization has grown moderately and when the ups and downs are smoothed out, consistently. My heart is warmed to see that what I hoped would happen is happening- a dedicated group of smart people are making a community out of the fabric of the BFAC. People who did not know of one another now do, people who thought the landscape for figure work in Boston was a lonely and barren one now feel differently, and a camaraderie is forming though the practice of drawing and painting and drinking and talking and being together, and knowing that we'll see each other again.

Meetup.com has been a godsend- a great funnel for gathering people who want to find something like what we're doing, and a way to extend the community experience during the days between physical meetings. Seeing what each of us chooses to upload for images, and having feedback on those efforts, is really rewarding and nourishing.

We took a big risk, after cutting way back after our summer hiatus to only our Monday night drawing session; we're back up to four sessions per week- now thankfully hosted by members other than me. Much appreciation for their work is due, they are really embodying the spirit of service in the pursuit of community. And George Ratkevich's work keeping up and remodelling our website is something I'm really grateful for.

I have been offering some "classes," which I had not intended to do but suddenly felt like doing, and those have been encouraging experiences. First, figure drawing from imagination, in which I try to explain the concepts that help me to think about the body when I draw. Those concepts came out of many experiences- Paul Rahilly's early streamlining of my drawing, my own anatomy study, particularly my attempts to simplify the connections and complexities of anatomy when preparing to teach it at B.U in 2003. The videotaped lectures by Robert Beverly Hale that B.U. had copies of in its nice little art library were so very helpful in this regard. Serious and comedic both inadvertently and intentionally, they were great fun to watch for someone like me, an enjoyer of the spectacle of nerdy and self-consciously elitist expertise presented by the double-breasted, pin-striped Brahmin figure of R. B.

Linen stretching workshop followed by a still life class, now extended by popular demand, and soon maybe a figure painting workshop or string of classes, requested by the folks last week. Nice to feel that what I do is valuable to someone.

So onward we go, not knowing if enough interest in the endeavor will last, and understanding that every one of us has twenty things that we probably ought to be doing other than this, and yet we choose this. No, I take it back- I really think someone ought to be doing this, and that someone is probably us and whoever cares to join us.