We sat down with Radcliffe Bailey at his Atlanta studio to discuss his current mixed-media exhibit at Solomon Projects, Looking for Light, Traveling at Night. The drawings and sculptures on view were created in the wake of a special guest artist program at the Glass Pavilion of the Toledo Museum of Art as well as the artist’s beautiful marriage to actress Victoria Rowell this June. Bailey’s work will appear at this month’s grand opening of the Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture in Charlotte, North Carolina. The video above was produced by Kombo Chapfika as a companion to the interview summarized below.
“Those are piano keys from all different types of pianos. When you think about it, how many songs do you think have been played on each piano? There’s 60 sets of pianos; 88 times 60 is—what?—over 5,000 keys.”
“Wherever the piece goes, it changes depending on the space. Originally, I had four times the amount of keys, but, for this one, I had to cut down the scale. The first one was called Storm at Sea. It’s a story about a ship at sea, and it’s also based on African deities, one in particular named Shango. Shango was known as the great thunder and lightening. Windward Coast [at Solomon Projects] was a whole other take on it: This was about triumph, about a person who could escape from the ship and the sharks, and who swam away. And it’s about music.”
“I love Sun Ra’s music. … Yeah, [he played once] over at what they called Nexus. I’ve seen him play maybe three times …. Sun Ra brings together a mixture of time periods, and he fuses them together into something that sounds futuristic. I like to compare my work to that in terms of the sounds and the riffs of different times. I use Georgia clay because it’s in my backyard. My backyard is on Civil War grounds—boom. Then I trace that to family members that were in the Civil War … and to my father being a railroad engineer.”
“Recently I made a railroad lantern that’s seven feet tall. It’s similar to the one in the gallery. … Part of it has an association with the Underground Railroad, but it’s meant to be subtle. The work has to have its own weight, its own punch, but it doesn’t have to be an obvious punch. I was curious about putting the viewers’ reflections into the work.”
“I mean, you want to talk about found materials? For one piece I used a finch. It was a live bird, an African finch. I played Charley Parker music on one old gutted out radio. That was looped, and the finch would chirp to the music. … I would stick the sheet music up under the birdcage and catch the bird droppings. And then I had a body of work called Bird Shit.”
“When that moment first happened to me, I was in school. A lot of kids were going away for spring break. … I stayed in the painting studio and worked for 24 hours, for two or three days straight. I didn’t eat. Didn’t sleep. I just worked, because I struck a note and started making something that I really, really liked. That was when I started making paintings that were just as much sculptures as they were paintings—and I got into this rhythm of possibilities. It’s in that space that every artist discovers that one thought or that one really important mark or stroke that said–ah, shit—that’s gonna go a whole bunch of places.”
“In one of my first installations, I used the sounds of insects on a full moon and sounds of my dogs barking. … I remember being caught in a locust storm as a kid. Scary, huh? It’s those kinds of experiences, and it’s all stuck up here. But my kids don’t see that. Now it’s all on video games.”
“Before there was an Art Basel, the art fair I think people were talking about was Art Chicago. I remember going and seeing from that perspective … ‘Wow, this how it happens?’ It was like a convention for the art world. It was sickening in a way, but I understood that that’s how it works.”
“Living here in Atlanta is a wonderful thing. The ground is very fertile. As a young artist you can grow. … I made a decision of not moving to New York or any of the major art hubs, because I felt in so many ways that I’d get swallowed. … Hell, I’m 40 now. I started showing in ’91. I’m still here, in the thrill of it. … But I still have to constantly gauge, ‘Where am I?’”
“We live in this city that’s so divided by the past. We can’t help but pass by it every day. The thing about Atlanta is … that when they burnt down the city it’s almost like they burnt down its soul. If you ever want to get rid of something you burn it. Atlanta has this strange energy; the history has almost been erased, but the people here have selective amnesia. It’s real weird. It’s strange.”
“I love it when I walk into a gallery or museum and it says ‘American Artist.’ I’m very proud of my makeup, but my makeup is many different people and many different experiences. I believe in making things that become so personal, they become universal.”
“Someone asked me the other day, ‘Radcliffe, how do we get more African Americans to come our art spaces?’ There’s a way to invite everybody. … Sometimes I drive out to Buford Highway, and I see whole different worlds out there. And when I see those worlds, I say, ‘You know what’s missing in the Atlanta art scene? The makeup of all these people.’”
The exhibit at Solomon Projects, Radcliffe Bailey: Looking for Light, Traveling at Night, has been extended through November 14. The artist will deliver a gallery talk on Thursday, October 29, at 6:30PM.