radcliffe bailey: four corners

Radcliffe Bailey: Four Corners

Radcliffe Bailey’s installation at Rhodes College ties together the artist’s varied sources and influences to create a tapestry of visual information that in the end becomes a no-holds barred personal and cultural document. Bailey’s artistic temperament has him swinging on a metronome. One moment he is sitting patiently, like an experienced chess player, looking and waiting for the work to reveal itself; the next minute he’s trying to capture the impulse of the moment, whirling in frenetic activity like Thelonious Monk, spinning on the stage while the band plays. Like jazz musicians, Bailey uses elements from his varied past, breaks them down and puts them back together in a strange, new shape. The parts and pieces of his paintings and installations function like skilled musicians, working together, playing to each other’s strengths and weaknesses. When pigment alone can’t be real enough, Bailey collages photographic images to lend historical credence. When the photographs feel too removed the paint comes back in to add warmth and sensitivity. If the image loses its footing in the bushy, drippy application, the crisp edge comes in via a stenciled star or a geometric shape. Seductive, rich surfaces are disrupted by a discord of cacophonous colors. The aggressive, rebellious scrawling oil bar marks are offset by pasting in children’s drawings that inject the pieces with a sense of hope. Just as the mash of imagery becomes too riotous, Bailey’s keen abstract sensibility inserts subversive, lyrical brushstrokes (a melody of sorts) that hold the piece together. It is this rigorous back and forth that gives Bailey’s work its sense of urgency. These are paintings that had to happen.

While Bailey’s painting surfaces are rich, his installations are no less rewarding. In one piece, thousands of keys have been removed from their pianos and laid in parallel lines to make up a 14×24′ rectangle on the gallery floor. When seen from the front the keys appear like rows of text and when viewed from the side the keys rhyme visually with furrows in a field. The subtle ebb and flow of the keys and their offset placement contribute to the quiet rhythm of the piece. The addition of small, plastic planets placed throughout the installation flips the scale of the piece and forces the once manageable rectangle to stretch out to infinity. The plastic newness of the toy constellation plays against the rugged patina of the keys, while the soft dusting of glitter on the planets and small, red rowboat add a fantastic other-worldliness to the experience.

Bailey’s poetic sensibilities may be at their sharpest in the modest installation, Bird with Bird. In a small room, two matching end tables are placed against a wall. On top of one sits a small birdcage inhabited by an Orange Crested Wax Bill Finch, on the other a vintage radio that is modified to play a single Charlie Parker record, over and over again. The poetic readymade fills the gallery with the celebratory sounds of one bird singing along with or responding to another.

Like the paint or the photographs in the wall pieces, the parts of the installations function the way the music does for the listener or the keys do for the piano player: the pieces act as a middle ground between this world and another wholly magical one where, creation occurs and discoveries are made. For the viewer, Radcliffe Bailey’s installation builds a place to find a similar understanding while delighting in the maelstrom.

Hamlett Dobbins is the Director of Rhodes College’s Clough-Hanson Gallery.

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