New York

William Bailey

Robert Schoelkopf Gallery

It’s not what William Bailey paints that identifies him with an artist like Ryman, but how he thinks. The “how” is pretty much the same, so that both have this attraction to large blank spaces that should clue a viewer in as to exactly how this thinking materializes into a visual principle. Bailey paints—and has been painting for a long time—quietly subdued, somewhat stuffy, formal arrangements of pottery on a shelf, with occasional eggs. The color range strikes me as too limited and safe—as safe as all white—earth tones with a pinch of blue and yellow. Nothing upsetting here, nothing to suggest that this purely fictional calm is not infinitely preferable to the chaos of the real world. A suite of Baileys turns a normal room into a sanctuary, a pool of sanity. I have absolutely nothing against them as paintings. I find them warm and comfortable, combining the innocent essence of Matisse’s “good armchair” dictum with an idealistic conservatism. Makes one want to put on slippers, light up a pipe, and have the servants fetch The New Yorker.

The world just kind of stops in Bailey’s paintings. The types and styles of pottery seem deliberately chosen for their anonymous, context-free timelessness. They are the most tastefully simple and humble of objects, absolutely nonopulent. Anything excessive, any overt emotional or economic quality, would ruin the unchanging standard, which the paintings hold as virtue. The values of stick-to-it-iveness and unflinching solidity in a world of fads and fancy are implicit in this unstanding and orderly, very Andrew Wyeth-like visual ethic. There is a stillness and poise, a tamed wiriness, lean and proud, in the figure drawings too—so that people become as well-behaved as pots. The nude typifies “timelessness” and the absolute nature of good values, stripped of the fashions of the day. The painting style also veils its historical moment; these paintings could have been crafted in any of the last four centuries, a fact Bailey would probably take as a compliment. What Bailey has in aces is good manners and tact.

I guess what I like about these paintings is how there’s absolutely no trickery involved. They are exactly what they are, more straightforward than any abstract or literalist art. There’s nothing more literal than a completely serious and sincere representational painting. Bailey exhibits no pictorial or technical virtuosity, either. (Am I wrong here? I have heard that people think the paintings are technically beautiful. Faultless, perhaps, but beautiful? I don’t think so.) Bailey’s discretion disallows any obvious brushmark or signature; there are no loose areas, nothing not utterly flat. I worry about all that smooth blankness, the lack of any articulation in the large rear walls and the areas below the tables’ edges. To me, it’s pictorially dead, and every painting looks as if it’s been cropped in the wrong place, falsely placing Bailey in a warm, friendly Minimalist position.

There were two small gouaches in the show. The subject matter was the same collection of pots, but they looked much. better, more together as a compositional unit on this smaller scale, without all that empty, pretentiously timeless space. And the frescolike scumbling and shadings weren’t imperceptively rendered; they were textured on the surface the way pots aren’t, allowing the subjects an expressiveness and individuality I thought was lacking otherwise. Bailey seems to have loosened up a little; it was like opening up a place where the viewer could breathe at last. Short of giving pots and eggs philosophical importance, I can’t think of anything I like less than the betrayal of technical expressiveness for the sake of a stifling emotional balance. It’s repressive, or, as Mark Strand’s catalogue essay to the show prefers, aristocratic.

Jeff Perrone