“Radcliffe Bailey: Tides”, by Terri Sultan

Radcliffe Bailey: Tides

by Terri Sultan

Four and One Corner - North

Four and One Corner - North, 2005

Radcliffe Bailey’s exhibition “The Magic City” opened and closed at Blaffer Gallery on the same evening in June 2001, a victim of flooding brought about by Tropical Storm Allison. As torrents of rain closed roads and highways, causing bayous throughout the city to overflow, Bailey—unfamiliar with Houston—became stranded, and spent the night in his car before retuning to safety. All of Bailey’s paintings and installations are an intricate blend of personal experiences and historical references, and for “Tides” he has created a cycle of highly expressionistic visual tableaux that survey watery metaphors from a variety of perspectives. Water has long played a significant symbolic role in his work, serving as a metaphor for physical, psychological, and spiritual passage. Bailey’s choice of iconography is particularly germane for a city like Houston, a port and railroad hub that is laced with bayous, borders on the Gulf of Mexico, and is rich in African American history.

The works comprising Tides mesh together oblique and direct allusions. Works such as Southern Crescent, Uprooted, Rooted, and Black Star Line (all 2002), give viewers clues into the artist”s thought process. The photographs, maps, and drawings in the paintings may refer to specific places, but their connotations are universal: the Georgia clay recalls West African architecture; an Angolan canoe carved from a tree resembles one typically found in the Deep South of the United States. Bailey’s skeins of symbols woven together extrapolate from the particular to the universal to convey the enforced movement of Africans from their native continent to the New World.

Uprooted, the scroll-like, 20-foot long nonlinear narrative, began as a response to Bailey’s Houston experiences during Tropical Storm Allison, but also alludes to his father, an avid fisherman with whom Bailey has spent hours on the water. “I found a photograph, probably from the 1920s or 1930s that depicted men fishing. The canoe looked familiar as something that could have been made in the South, but really I don”t know the date, time, or location of the picture—it could be anywhere or anytime—and that’s what I like about it. I also collaged maps onto the surface, and piano keys as a way to allude to the ocean and travel. That’s a play on words. You know, different keys, different islands, different parts of the world.”” This pictorial synthesis is the motivating force behind Bailey”s creative process. His paintings are structured almost like musical scores, with various melody lines, percussion notations, and harmonies converging and overlapping to create visual chords.

The result is a complex and multi-layered composition that is a tour de force of artistic free association. Brushy line drawings of winged horses, canoes, and paddles overlap collaged photographs of the moon in many phases; these nestle amid images of historical African sculptures and maps. Scattered throughout are random number series, mysterious strings of letters and phrases. Some dates refer to major floods on the Ohio (1907) and the Mississippi (1927) rivers. Both of these floods had major cultural, social, and political ramifications on their surrounding communities. By implication, Bailey seems to be saying, Houston’s recent flood will change our community in ways we cannot foresee. Uprooted continues Bailey”s signature painting style, but rather than building the composition around a central image as he has in the past, the artist has created allover patternings of gestures and images, with a rough, grid-like geometric, segmented patchwork of lines and blocks of color, combining many small increments of content. These notations form a personal code that Bailey employs as a way of marking time in the painting process, and to secretly personalize his mark-making. “For me, working on this painting was almost like writing a new compositional language. I was working toward a more activated painterly space. There are a lot of little paintings here, even behind other paintings that you see on the surface, buried in layers. I even pulled out images that I have used in past paintings, like the photographs of the African sculptures or the palm frond that I used in The Magic City installation in Houston. So I am kind of making a visual history or record of my past.”

In Rooted, Bailey alludes to a ship’s prow in the water by knitting together a sequence of wavy blue, black, and white lines across the bottom of the picture plane, creating a chevron-like wedge where reds and oranges predominate. “The shape of the boat stretches straight across the painting. As I was working on it, I wanted it to seem like the boat was approaching the viewer, head on, straightforward. Then I realized that the waves also allude to arteries and veins—a different kind of tide.” Bailey has spread a series of sepia-toned portraits, collected from a source in Alabama, against this vascular tide. To Bailey, they seem “candid shots of friends rather than formal studio portraits. All the people in the series seemed to be, not exactly related, but somehow from the same community.” Like many of his paintings, the composition is layered with passages of color, snatches of images and lines that create tangles of visual information laden with enigmatic clues. Some are numbers related to the slave trade; others obscure references to boats, or African deities. Scattered across the picture are images of bees and butterflies, and small, blue circles with glowing white centers. Viewers have the sensation of looking at the painting from several points of view simultaneously. “I want to play on the idea of looking at the world from up above or down below, or of sitting between the two worlds, like someone in a boat in the water. Then the person is between the deep space of the sea, and the broad expanse of the sky.”

The multipaneled wall installation Black Star Line restated the overall theme of “Tides,” and contains many of Bailey’s signature elements. The title refers to the steamship company operated by Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association from 1919 to 1922 as a business enterprise intended to catalyze a global black economy. This historical fact forms a baseline for Bailey’s visual improvisations, a lyrical metaphor for the sweeping goals of movement and freedom. Map fragments, canoe paddles, and railroad tracks painted and collaged on old doors and wood panels are icons of travel and passage. The realities of the African Diaspora’s Middle Passage are suggested by inky blue-black photographs of stars and the moon. These nocturnal portraits also reference the natural navigational tools that travelers, whether seafarers or refugees on the underground railroad, have used for centuries. Black Star Line is a rhythmic, jazz-inspired mélange of smoky undertones and bright, sharp passages, a study in visual counterpoint. Bailey used to listen to music consistently while he worked— a habit he recently stopped, saying, “I can’t really listen to the music because I am listening to too many other thoughts in my mind, things from the radio—mostly news. I guess I am listening to the world in a different way.” Bailey works late at night now, when the world is quiet, and the dark night skies, glittering stars and moon give him a sense of peacefulness, reminiscent of the long, seemingly desultory perambulations of jazz marathons like Miles Davis’ multivoiced classic In the Silent Way.

Untitled (house with bottles], is a result of Bailey’s ruminations on the plantation architecture of slave cabins and how these constructions reflected the necessity of improvising a meaningful existence in the face of a new, violent, and unstable existence. “The houses were made by slaves, but there is a cross between things that they were told to do and what they did on their own. I noticed that there were certain traditions that they fused with plantation design. There were certain things about the way the houses were engineered, such as the roofs, that are very similar to houses I have seen in pictures from Nigeria, for example.” Made of Georgia clay, wax, wood, silk, and velvet, and surrounded by half-filled water jugs bearing lit white tapers, Untitled is a powerful commemorative totem freighted with memory.

Bailey’s syncopations are as broad as the worldwide migration sparked by slavery, and as intimate as the artist’s remembering his grandfather’s homemade birdhouses. “There are fragments from different thoughts that cross my mind when I am working. Fragments of information make their way into the overall composition as I work. Everything I see and read becomes part of the story I am trying to tell.”

This publication has been prepared on the occasion of the exhibition “Radcliffe Bailey: Tides,” organized by Terrie Sulta for Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum of the University of Houston, September 21- November 24, 2002.