New York

Radcliffe Bailey

There is a polyphonic aspect to Radcliffe Bailey’s work that results at least in part from the role of music in his life. I felt this effect immediately on encountering his latest series of painted wood panels (each almost seven feet square), whose design and excess of information endow the visual with the spatial and environmental qualities of music. “What I do may not even be called art,” Bailey once remarked. “It may be called music.” The sheer exuberance of his patternswebbed tendrils of paint overlying patchworks of rectilinear shapes only furthers such an analogy. A certain structure pervades the jazz-riff–cum–Abstract Expressionist energy through which Bailey tries to reconcile, and harmonize, spontaneity and freedom with the restrictions of his geometric format.

Such counterbalancing has governed Bailey’s work for some time. He places an icon, usually an enlarged photograph, in the center of a mixed-media assemblage or sets it into a recessed niche, before which he sometimes puts found objects like old pharmaceutical bottles containing cotton plants or tobacco. His windowed, altarlike structure has served as a celebratory memorial for many African-Americans, including members of his own family. With this group of seven paintings and three works on paper, gathered under the title “Kindred,” Bailey continues to pay zealous homage to his ancestral and cultural traditions, adding to his repertoire photographs of African sculptures in museums.

Organized in a loosely defined grid, these untitled collaged and painted tapestries hang like monumental swatches, their grand patterns woven from numerous past narratives. The encoded fields function as both literal and metaphoric maps of places, influences, histories, and memories, obvious and arcane. Each work has its own palette and percussive rhythm: One panel, a meditation on an African sculpture, includes a broad cross-hatching suggestive of a thatched hut, as well as talismanic objects such as little burgundy velvet bags containing roots traditionally used for healing.

As focal points, the works’ subjects, particularly Bailey’s ancestors in magnified vintage photographs, fascinate: Despite his timid and ungainly stance, a young soldier represents the unsung heroics of African-American troops during the Civil War, his regimental banners appearing throughout the painting; a stylish young man in his twenties, posed with one arm akimbo, the other holding a fashionable straw hat, exudes a savoir faire both serious and lighthearted.

Although the history of such figures is compelling and Bailey achieves some variety from panel to panel, the format risks becoming formulaic, the inclusion of found objects redundant, almost at times gratuitous. It takes an effort to decipher the mysteries and allusions petrified behind the resin coats. The danger is that the slapdash, improvisational manner of Bailey’s assemblage and the hide-and-seek nature of his storytelling can assume a theatricality verging on slickness.

Thus the three works on paper, in a separate room, offered a welcome contrast. Two-dimensional, more intimate in scale, these works seemed less fabricated, involved in a subtler play of collage, especially one untitled work in which boats and swimmers reappear throughout, along with the names of islands, such as Saint Dominique and Martinique. While the integrating motif of water continues to allude to Bailey’s overarching theme of diaspora, it also serves as a metaphor for movement and for the struggle to endure if not for the paradoxes of assimilation.

Mason Klein