Kool Kat of the Week: Radcliffe Bailey Journeys Through Water, Blues and Blood at the High

Piano keys normally appear in organized rows and it’s the player who touches them out of order and creates waves of sound that become music to our ears. We listeners only see the front and top part—white or black—and not the full length that connects with the strings within the instrument itself. Across a wide expanse of hardwood floor of a gallery at the High Museum of Art, however, cast-off keys literally ebb and flow like tides in a storm—broken only by one lone dark head rising above the water.

In the case of  this installation titled Windward Coast, the description on the walls speaks about how the work “evokes the Middle Passage, a defining experience that shaped the traumatic history of the Black Atlantic Diaspora.” But artist Radcliffe Bailey says his view of the ocean was multidimensional including also the harbinger of destruction as in Hurricane Katrina and the serenity of fishing with his father. “There’s also this calm,” he says, speaking softly, almost shyly for a man who creates such large, dynamic works. Unlike some artists thrust into the public spotlight, his posture is self-effacing, naturally casual in jeans and a blue plaid jacket striking for its lightweight texture.

Radcliffe is at the High today to participate in a preview tour for media of RADCLIFFE BAILEY: MEMORY AS MEDICINE, the most comprehensive exhibition of his works to date, opening this Sunday June 26 and running through Sept. 11 at the High. Born and bred in Atlanta, his parents brought him to the High as a child and he graduated from the High-affiliated Atlanta College of Art in 1991. In the years since then, both the 40-year-old artist  and the museum have matured into globally-renowned figures in fine art. Frankly it’s nice to see that the High now feels comfortable enough in its own shoes not only to display a homegrown master but also to remind the global art community that not just commerce but also culture does happen in a city that often seems cockily focused on its business and sports achievements.

Windward Coast is just one example of artist Radcliffe’s signature style, layering common materials and adding paint and ink to create provocative stories of history, memory and biography. He says he got the inspiration for layering through working with etching and the lithograph process early in his career. In his words, not just music and art, but art and the written word are all connected—“making art is like writing a book. Each work of art is a different page, but all are part of the same book.”

Radcliffe’s works, sometimes contained in medicine cabinets, are not just layered in their presentation but also build boldly upon each other to communicate that life is a complex journey. For African Americans, for example, that path began in Africa, was altered violently by the slave trade but has retained hope and beauty and voice in the soulful music of jazz and blues. Hence, the three sections of the exhibition are themed water, blues and blood and contain recurring images of shadowy ships, haunting tintype photos, railroad tracks, coconut shells and African masks and statuettes of deities. Often Bailey explicitly uses seven layers and the number 7 also appears in works such as Seven Steps East. The latter piece suggests movement never ceases even though the two tintypes of black children are placed within the outline of a house.

The first piece in the “Water” gallery warns the viewer always to pause and look closely. A ship painted glittering black first appears beautiful but then one reads the title, Tricky, and sees the top hat of Yoruba trickster deity Eshu on its mast. Is this a slave ship that makes false promises of a new world? And yet apparently it’s a self-portrait of the artist. “I’ve always seen artists as tricksters, particularly in the way we live our lives ” Radcliffe says. “For me, it’s about being at a crossroads. I never thought I was going to be an artist. A friend said I’m like a vessel, channeling places we don’t think of.”

Water continues to flow into the second gallery where oars are everywhere. In Winged, they burst outward in a circle, they appear throughout the panoramic Uprooted, and they remain a few of many images in the powerful collage Oceanic Beloved as if one cannot address the African-American story without their presence. Even a giant blue baseball bat simply titled Clean-up II later in the exhibition ties back to Radcliffe’s fascination with the oar as a “means of conveyance,” he says. “A baseball bat is the means for players to traverse the bases.” He also needed an “object to beat down on all my problems,” he adds.

A home run of four bases is seen in Mound Magicians, a gigantic piece in the shape of a baseball diamond that captures both Radcliffe’s love of this all-American pastime and also the links between the sport and segregation through the Negro Leagues and ultimately integration. Radcliffe recalls playing catcher in the Little League as a boy and meeting Hank Aaron. He even dug up dirt from the playing field and mixed it into the paint, and the footprints between the bases are his own. “When I was a kid at school, I was sitting at the back of the class,” he says. “When I was playing baseball, it was different.

Piano keys also appear in Minor Keys, in which planets orbit a cosmos within a piano case. Radcliffe says the piece was one of many inspired at least partially by futurist jazz musician/philosopher/poet Sun Ra. Transbluesency takes its title from a poetry collection by Amiri Baraka, who wrote the seminal book on blues, BLUES PEOPLE: NEGRO MUSIC IN AMERICA. And the color blue, evocative of water and the blues, is present in many pieces in the exhibition.

Radcliffe is often associated with large works, but MEMORY AS MEDICINE reminds that he is equally skilled in smaller tableaux. For example, the brightly colored series of Six Notes From El Mina evokes the fluidity of impressionist watercolor but actually are done with gouache paint and ink. The Portuguese port of El Mina was a key departure point for slave ships, and the pieces convey both the beauty and beliefs of the tropical home left behind.

His tiniest piece is in the section themed “Blood,” a collection of works funded by a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant that reflect his own family heritage and history. Radcliffe had his own DNA tested and found his maternal ancestry to be linked to the Mende people of Sierra Leone. A miniature drawing of a Mende mask in ink and coffee shows an exquisite attention to detail but becomes a family heirloom when penned on a piece of sheet music and framed within a tiny red-velvet-lined 19th century tintype case.

“As an artist, I’m always trying to create new spaces and go in different directions,” Radcliffe says, adding that his greatest growth as an artist has been through error rather than intention. “I like feeling uncomfortable,” he admits. “As a kid playing chess, I loved losing because I’d learn from it. I love using colors that don’t match.” Sounds a lot like the experience of seeing this extraordinary exhibition.

All photos courtesy of the High Museum of Art. The photo of Radcliffe Bailey in his studio with Clean-up II was taken by Peter Harholdt, 2010.

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