“Patterns and Paintings”, The New Orleans Art Review

Patterns and Paintings



THE LARGE MIXED media works of Radcliffe Bailey and the constructions, carvings, and castings of James Surls would seem at first viewing to be distinctly different. Bailey’s works command the attention of the viewer and allow no respite except to move on to the next one. Surls’ conceits invite close attention without being overwhelming. Yet, despite the many differences that one could list, the works of these two artists are both more and less than what may seem to be at first glance.

My first response to Bailey’s pieces was to adopt a serious tone due to perceived allusions to the slave trade. This is a reasonable interpretation in reference to the three models of sailing ships encrusted with black particulate. The bitter irony of black in relation to the skin tone of African bodies and the death that was the fate of many and as metaphor for evilness could make the single-masted sloop Black Ark and the two-masted schooner Arkestra icons of human perfidy. This direction of response includes thinking of black ships as evoking the slavers that plied the seaways between Africa and the Western Hemisphere.

Yet the artist diverts us away from focusing on this reading through the qualities of excess, vagueness, and misdirection. These dark ships could also allude to the other wretched sailing vessels like the Flying Dutchman. The intense blackness ironically relieved by the glittering particulate material that would have been appropriate for an elegant nightgown allows another dimension of reading. A top hat perkily perched atop the single mast of Tricky, and the name Tricky itself, suggests the work of a trickster who plays mind games with his viewers with a spirit of mischief.

So too must we forego simplistic interpretations about wistful dreams of sailing the seven seas in voyages of adventure and discovery and romantic journeys to distant islands in the tropics where life is lived with case and comfort evoked by model ships floating on mantelpieces in middle class homes. Or the drastic counterpoint of horrible journeys by unwilling passengers chained and lamed in dark holds beneath sea-washed decks to be sold into forced labor in sweltering climes so that the contemporary middle and upper classes could build wealth and live their lives in ease. It would be a brave decorator’s move to pair one of these dark sailing ships with one of the wistful kind on the mantelpiece to inspire reflection on the myths and truths of our memories and dreams.

The delicate and decorative yet somber qualities of color and design of the almost six feet by four feet work on paper Passage make of the vaguely defined silhouette of the great two-masted schooner the central motif of the composition. Wash-stained surfaces and wide-brush-drawn lines form multiple grids overlapping each other like the transparent overlays in anatomical texts suggest dark skeletal forms, trees and branches, venal systems, and grids of town plans like the compounding of radicals in Chinese and Japanese ideographs.

A rectilinear pattern of thin lines overlies the playful, popartish six by five feet Winged. A stencil-style graphic motif reading “long live unia” arranged in a circle around a five-pointed star motif mimics the radial symmetry of dozens of paddles arranged like a fantastic propeller around a hub. And, as in Crossing, multiple images lie beneath like fragments of memory hovering within the liminal world of semiconsciousness.

To conceive and create the nine large pieces in the exhibition within a two-month period (the 2008 date indicates this) suggests a virtually nonstop working process during which the artist worked so quickly that the making of the works was an automatic process. The question then is whether the access to the inner workings of the subconscious mind in the manner of surrealist-inspired automatism made possible by such an uninterrupted ordeal resulted in evoking memories and associations or in the creation of a superficial decorativeness. We must be cautious here for apparent references to crossings and passages do not demand that we dwell on the ugliness of the slave trade. With the subtlety of artists like Willie Birch and Fred Wilson, the historical events hover on the cusp of consciousness so that one never forgets while the artist lives and works in the present tense. Bailey’s works do not erase or ”white out” the past nor do they allow it to overwhelm present consciousness but rather whisper quietly in our ears.

Small horizontally oriented white, red-brown, and black rectangular shapes float ambiguously in front of a warm neutral ground in the very large (ten feet by eight feet) mixed media on canvas Ascend in unconscious reference to Mondrian’s and van Doesburg’s transitional to De Stijl work. The shadows of linear, one-cell wide grids that look as if made with sections of model train tracks twine and climb from the lower to the upper edge of the canvas in a maze of overlapping forms like a parody of DNA”s double helices. A small black rectangle with a simulated poster bill printed with the phrase “long live unia” and a steaming triple-stacked steamer racing through the waves affirms the existence of the visually ephemeral picture plane as did the trompe l’oeil nail in George Braque’s early cubist Violin and Pitcher Still Life. Gentle tonal harmonies within a limited range of hues and values would not clash with anyone’s decor.

The theme of voyaging expressed in the ideas of crossings, passages, wings and ascending with sailing ships and steamers, paddles and propellers, train tracks and stenciled labels continues in the found-fabrics work named Covered. Pieces of neutral toned cloth of various shapes are stitched onto a worn square packing quilt with a playfulness that juxtaposes the serious, the not so serious, and the decorative. The limited range of pale warm grays and earth tones, the indexing to others of the artist’s works with the “long live unia” motif combine with references to the cardinal directions, the initial of each placed in the conventional top for north, right for east et cetera. Corner and mid-sides marked by contrasting patches mimic the pockets of a pool table and the color scheme and floating rectangles of Ascend. Narrow strips of cloth laid horizontally in a narrow band across add visual and physical texture to the already quilted patterning of the cloth ground. A print of a photographic image of a well-dressed young man seated on an ornately decorated throne-like chair basted over the narrow horizontal band transforms the work into a folk art icon.

The Day of Soumbedioune in Dakar is both an index to and summation of the other pieces as if they were preparing the way for its creation. Like the lively and colorful seaside market town, all the elements of the other works are gathered together here: the silhouettes of sailing ships, model train track prints, floating rectangles, rectilinear grid with hanging spheres, interwoven strips of color, low saturation hues within a narrow gray scale range of values, and sharp color accents. The indices are woven together to form a tapestry that maps the artist’s consciousness of the past two months. Strident notes of slivers and shards of shapes punctuate the amorphous Piranesian space of muted grays and greens and blues and blacks like the sharp tones of high-pitched flutes. The elements are subsumed within the whole of the composition as the individual qualities of the instruments and notes of grand musical compositions dissolve in unison. It is as if the artist is daring us to focus on any single motif to the exclusion of the others and make of it more than one small contribution to the broad scheme of things as they are.