New Orleans

Radcliffe Bailey at Contemporary Art Center New Orleans

Radcliffe Bailey’s current exhibition at Contemporary Art Center New Orleans rewards multiple visits. Comprising seven large-scale works by the Atlanta-based artist, the exhibition gathers an intensely personal constellation of imagery that has continued to distinguish Bailey as a contemporary artist of significant aesthetic and critical power. Bailey’s emphasis on the rich symbolic context of the liminal, or the in-between, provides support for his expansive definition of American culture and its unique admixture of European, African, Central American, and Caribbean visual and cultural traditions. In his radically open formal vocabulary, signifiers playfully subvert the gaps that separate Anglo-European visual codes from earlier representational traditions of West and Central Africa, and point to Bailey’s unique response to forms of détournement associated with conceptual art of the 1950s and ’60s. The crocodile in On Your Way Up (2013) registers as both crucifix and curio, a metaphor for the Nile or ancient Nigerian water god, a political response to animal rights or a post-Duchampian absurdity retooled for a Southern audience. Darkness is almost always accompanied by hints of optimism and hopeful belief, yet what resonates throughout the exhibition is Bailey’s mastery of ambiguity within his pictures, his skill in representing the fluctuating space where water meets land, heaven meets earth, gesture meets text, figuration meets formalism, and art becomes music.

Radcliffe Bailey. On Your Way Up. 2013. Tarp, crocodile, and steel. 120 x 106 x 10 inches. Image: Courtesy of the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans.

Radcliffe Bailey. On Your Way Up, 2013; tarp, crocodile, and steel; 120 x 106 x 10 in. Courtesy of the Contemporary Arts Center of New Orleans.

Bailey grounds his practice in a playfully subversive and anachronistic field of visual and art histories and traditions, and finds freedom in the deconstruction of a vocabulary of signs and images culled from early African art and the turbulent history of the Black Atlantic experience. This is most robustly felt in works where textual fragments, graffiti, and African ideograms feature prominently within the pictorial field and intersect with objects that embody the physical and psychological rupture of the Middle Passage and the colonization of Africa. The gargantuan mixed-media work Black Night Falling (2014) is the most complex of these in its presentation of the representational, gestural, and performative features of markmaking associated with so-called “primitive” art; African cosmograms such as the dikenga (a spiritual map of cross and circle used by tribes from the kingdom of Kongo to mark the space between the mystical and earthly realms and channel communication between mystical forces and religious practitioners) and Haitian vévé drawings of gods and the heavens interrupt the indexical marks left by Bailey’s shoes and bare feet, turning the canvas into an empty stage of leftover symbols and movements co-choreographed by artist and history. Meanwhile, cutouts of circles puncture the rough textures undulating across the deep black of the picture space, desperately hinting at the sun that cannot shine over the seas where so many lives were cruelly lost. It is Bailey’s unique, dialectical expression of black experience as something collectively felt, infinitely diverse, and personally political that invests his creations with a powerfully unresolved symbolic space where the historical consciousness of trauma and the potentiality of healing are allowed to confront and embrace one another.[1]

Radcliffe Bailey. Black Night Falling. 2014. Mixed media. 168 x 240 x 14 inches. Image: Courtesy of CACNO.

Radcliffe Bailey. Black Night Falling, 2014; mixed media; 168 x 240 x 14 in. Courtesy of CACNO.

However, it is the artist’s deep investment in music and sound that remains the most powerful aspect of his practice, connecting him not just to a “black tradition…but a black mode of creativity” where ceaseless improvisation and experimentation accumulate and intensify.[2] In statements about his work, Bailey continually pays debt to the technical innovations and artistic ethics of American jazz masters Sun Ra, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk, and his interest in capturing the historical and political impact of music on American culture.[3] In many ways, his works operate like a jazz riff where profound simplicity and repetition take on the spontaneous fireworks of individual style—what Amiri Baraka calls “the changing same.”[4] Motifs reappear in new forms and contexts, their moods and identities changed and deterritorialized through changes in scale and compositional organization. This musical materiality is presented diametrically in the two installations created for the New Orleans show: Windward Coast, a three-dimensional work of disassembled oak and walnut-wood piano keys emanating from the corner of the gallery, interrupted by a haunting plaster head covered in black glitter rising out the undulating sea of driftwood; and If Bells Could Talk, a sculptural bouquet that includes brass instruments exploding from an antique birdcage sitting atop an oversize 19th-century wooden music stand and a recording of a solo horn riff reverberating across the gallery—its sound complicated by a pink conch shell suspended on the opposing wall.[5] While Windward Coast re-presents the lost or unheard songs and sounds of slaves transported across the Atlantic, and the overwhelming physical and psychological violence associated with “lost-ness” in African American culture, If Bells Could Talk acknowledges the incredible contribution slave artisans made to the history of decorative arts, the repressed voices of an enslaved people, the liberating force of jazz, and the specificity of New Orleans to those narratives.[6] Music, for Bailey, is like history—a human attempt to acknowledge, honor, and move forward through time.

Radcliffe Bailey. Winward Coast. 2015. Piano keys, plaster bust, and glitter. Dimensions variable—approx. 27 square feet. Image: Courtesy of CACNO.

Radcliffe Bailey. Winward Coast, 2015; piano keys, plaster bust, and glitter; dimensions variable—approx. 27 square feet. Courtesy of CACNO.

[1] See Christine Mullen Kreamer, Mary Nooter Roberts, and Elizabeth Harney, Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art (Washington, DC: The National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, 2007), 166.

[2] See Carole Thompson’s “Preface” in the exhibition catalog for the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA, entitled Radcliffe Bailey: Memory as Medicine (New York: Prestel Publishing, 2012), 16. Thompson quotes John Vlach’s essay on the Charleston-based blacksmith Philip Simmons, and compares Bailey’s unique individualism to the black artisan–artist.

[3] “I love music and music is a very important part of the work that I do. Imagine all the pianos and all the different songs that each piano has played. I am relating to that. I am also interested in connecting the different time periods—a piano from a church to pianos from a high school to people’s personal pianos. I am thinking about how music has been connected to spirituality.” — Radcliffe Bailey in a 2010 interview with art historian Edward S. Spriggs, quoted in “Radcliffe Bailey’s Cerebral Universe,” in Radcliffe Bailey: Memory as Medicine, pg. 106.

[4] Baraka is quoted in William J. Harris’s “How You Sound?: Amiri Baraka Writes Free Jazz,” in Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies, eds. Robert O’Mealley and Brent Edwards (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 312.

[5] The first iteration of Winward Coast appeared in Looking for Light, Traveling By Night at Solomon Projects in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2009, and then appeared again in 2010 at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. The new 2015 installation at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans is placed in a corner window facing the street as if it were spilling out of the gallery and into the world—a decision similar to the candy-floor work of the late conceptual sculptor Félix González-Torres.

[6] Dr. Andrea Andersson, Senior Curator at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, mentioned that the instruments used in this installation were requested by Bailey while the install was in process—another instance of the artist’s dependence on spontaneity in his aesthetic practice (telephone interview conducted on April 2, 2015). Thanks to Dr. Andersson for her insightful commentary on the exhibition and Bailey’s work at the CACNO.