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.