In both form and content, Radcliffe Bailey’s multifarious and magical art is and has always been about roots and branches. His work evokes the history of Mother Africa and the experiences of her people since their involuntary diaspora. He is not alone, of course: as the defining narrative for the enslaved and descendants and for America’s political and racial history, the subject is a drumbeat through generations of African-American art.
Bailey is heir to them all. The Harlem Renaissance artists’ ennobling pride in their African heritage, Romare Bearden’s celebration of African-American music (not to mention his pre-eminent use of collage) and Jacob Lawrence’s historical chronicles are part of Bailey’s DNA, just as he shares with self-taught brethren such as Thornton Dial a deep understanding of the metaphoric possibilities of materials and the will to symbolism.
As with his contemporary peers, Bailey’s art touches issues that animate contemporary art: identity, memory and politics. Similarly, he moves freely among — and synthesizes — painting, collage, sculpture, installation and photography. Yet, as attested by “Radcliffe Bailey: Memory as Medicine,” the High Museum of Art‘s handsome survey spanning 1993 to the present, his work is distinctly his own.
It mirrors the way the artist visits and revisits essential themes, making them new through the use of different media and formats, and it serves visitors, who may enter the show from either end. But the three major themes — blood, water and blues — overlap so frequently that the distinctions lose their structural function. In addition, the arrangement makes it difficult to discern Bailey’s artistic evolution.
After seeing his recent solo show at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York (some of which is now at the High), I sensed the ascendance of a more stripped-down, conceptual approach, which had emerged in the 2007 “Returnal” exhibitions at Clark Atlanta University and Solomon Projects and had continued in Solomon Projects’ 2009 show, which included the installation “Windward Coast” and works from Bailey’s residency at the Toledo Museum of Art.
The spare elegance of the recent works makes the heavily varnished pieces of the 1990s, whose rich layering I had always admired, look almost crude by comparison. Maybe it’s just a phase of a fertile career, but I like it.
For more on “Memory as Medicine,” see my AJC review.