Radcliffe Bailey at the High Museum

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These three essays were composed for our Art Writers Mentorship Program  [cycle 4 is underway]. Participants were asked to select an artwork in the collection of the High Museum of Art, where this particular session was held. The assignment given by the mentor, Georgia State University professor Susan Richmond, was an exercise in “deceleration, patience, and immersive attention,” which was inspired by  Jennifer L. Roberts’s article “The Power of Patience” in Harvard Magazine. All three authors were drawn to the works of Atlanta artist Radcliffe Bailey. 

Re:Focus a photo exhibition on view at Swan Coach House in Atlanta through October 27

Destination Unknown, 2005, photograph on Plexiglas, wax, collage, indigo, tobacco and oil stick, 56 x 56 x 5 ½ inches. High Museum of Art, Atlanta. Gift of B. Kate Amesbury, 2014.423. © Radcliffe Bailey. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Radcliffe Bailey, Destination Unknown, 2005; photograph on Plexiglas, wax, collage, indigo, tobacco and oil stick, 56 by 56 by 5½ inches. High Museum of Art.

Destination Unknown, a 2005 work by Radcliffe Bailey is a mixed-media piece that touches upon the past, present and future, through the lens of the African-American experience. As such, it is not tidy—it is not a clear, concise work that neatly explains the past, but instead encompasses multiple overlapping narratives. Now, in the summer of 2016, the ideas presented here have even more traction. The discussions around what it means to be an American, the lasting and insidious effects of institutionalized racism, and the very manner in which citizens begin to intersect with the power structure are alluded to in this work.
Using old photographs, found sculpture, and drawing, Destination Unknown reminds the viewer of the reality of slavery, and foreshadows a future that is steeped in violence and survival. Central to the “cabinet,” as Bailey calls the construction, is a model of a Spanish Galleon, its cheap canvas and wood body obscured by a matte black substance somewhere between tar and wax—it looks gummy and slathered on—evoking the weight of history and the stickiness of the past.  The viewer can imagine that, like an actual slave ship, it is burned, bloody, shit- and sick-stained; a horror floating in the mind’s eye.
Above the ship, a crescent moon, turned on its side, is hastily outlined. Neither waxing nor waning, it suggests that the stars in the sky have shifted for those on this voyage, and not for the better. Below the model boat is a cyanotype image on Plexiglas of what appears to be enslaved people in a field, or perhaps sharecroppers still caught in the legacy of American slavery. On the pieced-together paper backdrop are indigo stains, conjuring spilled blood and waste, and there are hash-marks that imply the counting of days. And yet, there is a grand hopefulness, a refusal to be defined by grief and violence in this work. For though the imagery presented in the cabinet calls to mind brutality, it also speaks to the artist’s bravery, reinvention, and grace. The bravery to commit these ideas to form, the reinvention of nautical tropes, and the grace to deploy a sleight of hand and dwell in the realm of the aestheticized.
Extending from under the ship, into the space of the sharecroppers image, is a line drawing of an anchor. This casually rendered form does double duty as a giant hook ready to ensnare the workers below — a foreshadowing of lynchings to come.

Radcliffe Bailey (American, born 1968), Tar Top, 1995, tar paper, acrylic, oil stick, encaustic, tar, plexiglass, photograph, silk flowers, dried flowers, glass, fabric, and electric lights on wood. High Museum of Art, Purchase with funds from Alfred Austell Thornton in memory of Leila Austell Thornton and Albert Edward Thornton, Sr., and Sarah Miller Venable and William Hoyt Venable. © Radcliffe Bailey. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.
Radcliffe Bailey, Tar Top, 1995; tar paper, acrylic, oil stick, encaustic, tar, Plexiglas, photograph, silk flowers, dried flowers, glass, fabric, and electric lights on wood. High Museum of Art.

Radcliffe Bailey’s Tar Top (1995) is a multifaceted cultural altarpiece begging for closer inspection.
Tar Top is a large-scale, mixed-media piece comprising such materials as acrylic, oil stick, encaustic, tar, silk and dried flowers, fabric, and electric lights, all layered heavily on wood. While layers of tar make the piece overwhelmingly dark, bright swaths of yellow, blue and gold bring lightness to the piece, creating a sense of calm and unity.
The layers of material, color and imagery simultaneously conceal and reveal a family history. This is what memory looks like; this is what memory feels like.
In the center of the work is an aged photograph preserved behind glass. Its subjects are three men: one seated, looking quite dignified in a white collared shirt and a hat tilted just so, flanked by two men looking more unsure of their purpose in front of a camera. The men’s relationship to each other is ambiguous; are they kin who the photographer convinced to pose together? Is the seated man the employer of his fellow men, whose newsboy caps suggest their membership in the working class? This tension between knowing and not knowing is captivating.
The men may be frozen in time behind glass, but they are surrounded by a shifting landscape of family history, memory, and magic. A bouquet of dried flowers lies at their feet. A blue glass bottle — medicine? libation? potion? — stands at the ready. Names are scrawled across the surface — some with dates, others without — like those written in the back of a family bible.
Symbols that appear hastily scratched into the surface remind me of the language of images from Nigeria called Nsibidi. One such symbol denotes a mirror. Though mirrors are used for looking and revealing, they are also sometimes shrouded upon the death of a family member. Nails are driven in across the surface of Tar Top, conjuring associations with Nkondi statues made by the Kongo people, which are used alternately as a sources of spiritual healing or tools for afflicting one’s enemies.
Tar Top is situated in a small area within the High Museum’s modern and contemporary galleries, along with three other works by Bailey. In the adjacent works, Bailey addresses the ruptures of black families caused by slavery and the Great Migration. Tar Top feels like an extension of Bailey’s family histories, but one that is marked by the ambiguity of memory, like the pieces of scorched wood that appear among the bright flashes of yellow and blue paint. It seems to ask, what are we trying to remember, and what are we trying to forget?

Radcliffe Bailey (American, born 1968), En Route, 2005, photograph on Plexiglas, coconut palms, felt, acrylic and wood, 68 x 68 x 5 ½ inches. High Museum of Art, Atlanta. Purchase with David C. Driskell African American Art Acquisition Fund, 2006.21. © Radcliffe Bailey.
Radcliffe Bailey (American, born 1968), En Route, 2005, photograph on Plexiglas, coconut palms, felt, acrylic and wood, 68 by 68 by 5½ inches. High Museum of Art.

“I can’t write a [musical] lick. But I can tell a story,” quips Radcliffe Bailey in an interview filmed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts [watch video here]. And in Bailey’s mixed-media “medicine cabinet sculpture” En Route (2005), he composes stories with objects that materialize the histories of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the African diaspora. Photographs feature predominantly among the heterogeneous cultural artifacts discarded by others that Bailey often retrieves during his forays into antique stores. In the video, surrounded by objects he’s collected, salvaged, and accumulated in his studio, he says, “they’re [the objects] just waiting to have a conversation with something else that can activate it.” By juxtaposing material objects, Bailey’s multilayered “medicine cabinet” of history does more than set conversations in motion. Cumulatively, En Route’s layered materials are like a record of the ineffable emotional cost of dislocation and dispossession.
I’m drawn into the work by a lush blue photograph of a small boat and tree-lined beach that occupies the lower two-thirds of the cabinet’s Plexiglas front. A deep indigo liquid has seeped into the upper part of the cabinet, staining the photograph of lush palm trees with its own plantation blues and bearing the “slave ship imprint.” With the deceptiveness of a tropical mirage, the glistening aqueous blue evaporates as I look more closely. Rectangles of reflective film applied to the Plexiglas block visual access to the entirety of the printed photograph. All that is visible through a postcard-size opening in the film is a dark figure in the small boat. Perversely, the original photo has been both embellished and disfigured; the boat is overpainted with crude decorative reeds and, although the original canoe bears no cargo, a grotesquely white glitter-spackled photo of an African sculpture is collaged onto the Plexiglas—African statuary en route over waters populated with drowning African masks. The insertion of this statue suggests that the figure could be laboring in the contemporary tourist economy, transporting a sculpture that could become decorative art for the global African art market.
Above this mirage-like scene, the red, green and yellow dressing lines of a ship festoon the top of the work. The lines of small felt triangles — vestiges of Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line, connecting us to Bailey’s own ancestry and the Garveyites in his family — also intimate the triangular slave trade whose physical, psychological and emotional realities are recalled in each object. Bailey collages disparate objects — hessian sacks, a label from a bottle of Rhum Vieux – Distillerie Coloniale, Thiais, Seine — that bear witness to the plantation economy’s darker colonial dependencies. Material evidence of early globalization bumps up against ancestral signs in the painted celestial symbols of the Kongo cosmography and in the “white gold” kaolin-coated palm fronds.
The sedimented histories in Bailey’s medicine cabinet might suggest that to see material evidence is know material histories, but the visual filters he’s inserted remind us that sight and knowledge are not the same. Material evidence cannot constitute knowledge of the lives, experiences and subjectivities of the people forcibly transported to colonial plantations.The laboring black bodies are absent, and only vestiges of their labors remain. I’m pulled into the multiple intersecting histories, yet my vision is screened and entirely obscured in places. Bailey’s multilayered aesthetic refuses access, and denies me the satisfaction of thinking that I know how to interpret what I see. The political and emotional power of Bailey’s work lies in its refusal of complacent voyeurism.

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