New York

William Bailey

André Emmerich Gallery

Whereas the objects in Giorgio Morandi’s paintings tend to dissolve into an equivocal haze, William Bailey’s still lifes are characterized by a clarity and distinctness that seems to stretch the taut cloth of consciousness surrounding them to its limits. Morandi’s muted tonal planes depict objects as though they were caressed by a hood of light; they sit in an indefinite space, frequently articulated only by their shadows. In contrast, Bailey’s objects are brazenly determinate; they seem tailor-made for the uniformly bright space they inhabit. It is hard to say whether the silence of Morandi’s or Bailey’s still lifes is more radical—more at the root of perception. Certainly both seem to offer a climactic awareness of the unverbalizable givenness of things.

But there is a difference: Morandi’s objects seem temporal sediments, fraught with memory and stifled desire, slowly curdling into consciousness. This helps explain why they seem randomly present, as though spatial afterthoughts. Bailey’s objects are systematically presented—lined up in a row for easy identification. They are much more clearly practical, more everyday, than Morandi’s memento mori, which seem to have retreated into some twilight zone of disuse. Bailey’s brisk objects have nothing of the death that often lurks behind the stillness of still-life objects. His forms may be sleeping beauties, and secretly eternal, but they can awaken and move and recover their senses, while Morandi’s objects seem drugged with eternity. They exist in a limbo of self-forgetfulness, somewhere between insomnia and somnambulism, while Bailey’s objects seem self-conscious to an elegant fault, and as such unabashedly—unequivocally—“there.”

Bailey, then, offers pragmatic still lifes, in which ordinary objects are forced into contemplative significance by their regular, geometric arrangement. But Bailey’s objects offer us something that may be better than the speculative depth, tricky memory, and weltschmerz associated with Morandi: sensuous force, amazingly consistent and so intense as to threaten to undermine the coherence of the illusion it helps to create. There is an odd erotic indiscreetness to Bailey’s discreetly self-contained, austere objects. They seem too vivid, too naked for their own good. He certainly seems to be more taken with them than with the naked females he presents in one picture. This painting lacks sensuous thrust, apart from a few startling details, especially the eyes of the figures. It is as though Bailey prefers the bodies of things to the bodies of people: he displaces his passion onto inanimate objects, animating them inwardly, while he withdraws it from animate ones, which thus fall sensuously flat, almost to the point of listlessness.

Bailey shows us that mundane, even quaint objects (his have a New England flavor) have an unexpected, disruptive, sensuous dimension that can lend them a hypnotic authority. In carrying on Cezanne’s project with American means, he reverses its tendency toward abstraction, restoring its original phenomenological point: to return to the things themselves, as free as possible of presuppositions about them. Bailey’s still lifes show that this remains a viable option for art, for they remind us that things always have esthetic density, however inadvertently, and however hard it is to alter our consciousness in order to experience it. Bailey’s still lifes make this alteration look deceptively easy.

Donald Kuspit