San Antonio, Texas. ART Magazine.
About 35,000 wooden piano keys swim in the sea created by artist Radcliffe Bailey. The waves crash into the walls of the exhibition space while a glittery black human head floats in the midst of the rhythmic composition. In Windward Coast, the waves in this wooden sea evoke a certain degree of torment and uneasiness but at the same time the neutral colors and rhythm of the waves inspire a passive and desolate feeling of conformity and impotence. Standing in the exhibition room taken over by this installation, the viewer experiments the sound of the wooden piano keys falling on each other when the piece was created. The sound is emitted by a speaker inside a conch shell, which is placed on a corner in the exhibition room, emulating the sound that these shells emit of the sea. This piece is open to interpretation: it could be about hurricane Katrina, about the Middle Passage, or about Radcliffe Bailey going fishing with his father. The piano keys crashing with each other evoke the creation of the piece in some sort of auditive memory. The Middle Passage and hurricane Katrina are events that we know happened in the past; we hear their echo but we do not appreciate the powerful and aggressive meaning of its sound. The sound of the piano keys and the overpowering scale of the installation emphasize the vulnerability of the floating glittery head while the viewer is reminded of its insignificance not only in nature but in history. Radcliffe Bailey’s work creates introspective memories that turn universal and increase the understanding of his own journey.
“Memory as Medicine came from a body of work that I started making which was based on medicine cabinets. I started making these frame pieces that are not framed but actually based on the size and the shapes of medicine cabinets. The ideal was that whenever I was sick I would go towards my memory. My memory was always my way to figure it out and some of it is trying to understand my makeup in terms of my DNA and understanding certain parts of my family and my ancestors crossing the Atlantic and not really knowing our religion and spirituality, I mean it is in there, but not really being able to identify it. I have always been curious about that with my work”, explains Radcliffe. Memory as Medicine was organized by the High Museum in Atlanta and curated by Carol Thompson, their curator of African American Art. After the closing at the High Museum in September 2011, the exhibition traveled to the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College where it was shown from January through May 2012. Now, the exhibition will be shown at the McNay Museum of Art through September 12. The exhibition curated by Thompson is not arranged in chronological order; instead, Memory as Medicine is divided into three recurrent themes in Bailey’s work: water, blues, and blood.
The viewer is welcomed to the exhibition with the theme of water. A mixture of two-dimensional and three-dimensional works, which contain recurrent imagery such as water, oars, and boats, is presented. With a vivid color palette in which blue and green predominate, the works evoke water indirectly through color and by the fluidity of its compositions, but sometimes water is directly represented. In many of the medicine cabinet works by Bailey, the water circles around oars or bats that cut through the water are emphasized becoming an important focal point. Water is an important element in Bailey’s memories because of its transcendental position within his ancestors’ history. Also, the water depicted in his work evokes power and the human struggle to attempt to conquer this natural element that is fundamental for our existence yet a powerful destructive force. In Bailey’s work, water is also a metaphor for the journey of life, which even though we try to control, it is a linear flowing channel that goes way back and will continue despite our failed attempts.
The viewer is then taken to the next theme: blues. With some intimate drawings on noted paper and more piano keys used in combines, the artist speaks about the role of music within his cultural background. As Edouard Glissant says: “Jazz is a memory of the painful journey”. In Bailey’s works, music is explored as a joyful form of expression that denotes pain and the struggle of the African American past. Listening to some African songs, one might think that because of the energetic music, the lyrics must be those of a happy song; however, some of its happy melodies speak of mourning or suffering. This duality of music and its representation of the joy of life even in suffering is greatly represented in Bailey’s work. However, the division between the water and the blues themes is not strongly delineated. Since most of his works deal with water, blues, and blood, this separation is not very clear.
The last section deals with blood, a very recurrent theme in Radcliffe’s work. Blood means ancestry, family, past, origin, and transcendence. From beginning to end all of his works speak about blood line and memory, but at the end this exploration becomes more direct. Several of Bailey’s two-dimensional works create a snapshot of a déjà vu that sums an experience in one image. Through the use of layers, metaphors, and transparencies, the artist builds a series of images that paint a sensation of a far away memory that can be experience by the viewer yet not quite understood. After tracing his DNA to his ancestors in Sierra Leone and Guinea, Bailey’s work becomes a bit more literal. His sculpture of a glittery black DNA, seems to be very straightforward, but the choice of material is very peculiar. Black glitter is seen often through his work. He says: “I am interested in this mysterious African force that propels black people wherever they are in the world”. The black glitter empowers the figure, it is not a dark dull black; instead, there is a light shinning through that empowers the subject with this mysterious source.
The water, blues, and blood themes, are definitely a good representation of Radcliffe Bailey’s inspirational core. In Memory as Medicine, the wide variety and range of his artwork is truly epitomized as Thompson described. “I wanted to be sure that with this exhibition people would get an idea of the range of his artistic production: from really large-scale dramatic floor installation, as you will see, to really intimate and small gouache works on paper. He works kind of in between painting and sculpture. There is a lot of variety in his work. Some people might have seen one work and then they think that’s all he does, but he does so much more”, explains Carol. For Bailey, working in different ways is his natural approach to art. A quote by Bailey on the welcoming wall to the exhibition says the following:”Making art is like writing a book. Each work of art is a different page, but all are part of the same book”.
Memory as Medicine is the most significant exhibition of Radcliffe Bailey’s work in his career. The works on display are a compilation of different permanent collections, including the McNay, who just recently acquired Procession. Bailey’s work is represented in leading museum collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.; San Francisco Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. It is a great achievement for a contemporary artist to have a solo exhibition at a museum. “It feels good. It is so scary, but at the same time it feels good. It is good to actually see several works together that I never imagined to be together or that I never imagined were going to be together while I was here. That’s the good part. I say it every once in a while, it feels good in terms of me making work and my parents are still here and for them to be able to see it. It feels more about that relationship, than it feels about my relationship with the art world”, contently expressed the humble artist. In this manner, at the end of the exhibition the viewer is asked to reflect on his past and ancestry with an interactive activity. A world map is painted on a wall where the viewer is invited to put a colored stamp where he or she was born and were his or her place of origin is located.
Memory as Medicine will be on display until September 12. For more information please go to the McNay’s website mcnayart.org