Los Angeles

David Hullfish Bailey

If American painters continue to doggedly mine the border between abstraction and representation, it is because they remain, in general, conflicted on the issue. Neither a painter nor really a sculptor, David Hullfish Bailey has found it more productive to speculate on the nature of the opposition itself rather than seek any kind of synthesis. Architecture, urban planning, and product design appear in his work as real-world sites of this ongoing aesthetic conflict, providing concrete instances of a figurative occupation of abstract space and vice versa.

The reductivist argument for abstraction is easily reconciled with humble wood-shop practicality, yet the widespread suspicion persists that lurking inside every streamlined form are obscurantist, elitist claims. In this exhibition, Bailey demonstrates how the cultural ambivalence of the American public might be mobilized toward specific political ends. His central motif is a hunter’s decoy, a “red-state” prop, but one with which Bailey, himself a hunter, is familiar. A representation that disrupts the natural order of the ecosystem, a decoy may be employed to either repel predators or lure prey. Here it does a little of both: Through a canny reorchestration of the old “bait and switch” routine, the owl, a mortal danger to the individual songbird, is instead employed to trap the species en masse, as, rather than flee, they gather together to defeat their common enemy. The exploitation of this fear-based response recalls nothing so much as the campaign shenanigans that secured George W. Bush’s second term in office.

Bailey’s particular interest lies in the aesthetics of the lure. The artist, accepting the limitations of his own technique, has produced a series of “preparatory” drawings and several finished decoys that distort the owl’s features from expressionistically anxious one moment to cubistically cockeyed the next. Suggesting that this “artistic” reworking comprises only one possible response to what is in fact a decoy kit, he cements the connection between his naturalist metaphor and current politics, simultaneously indicting the art world’s aloofness as the guarantee of its ultimate complicity with every move on the geopolitical chessboard.

The multiple paradoxes of our post-Soviet age are encapsulated within the show’s largest piece, Platform (proposal), 2005, a pyramidal structure modeled on a design for a people’s theater, transplanted from revolutionary Russia in order to serve as a platform for a brand of “folksy” rhetoric perhaps inflected with traces of Bolshevik naturalism. Made from straw bales, it is, much like Bush’s sleek modern ranch in Crawford, Texas, a global abstraction couched in the terms of a local vernacular. In this advanced-art context, it undergoes another shift in meaning, but it is one that obscures as much of the so-called big picture as it illuminates.

A final work, Supertitling Device, 2004–2005, demonstrates to what extent a divisive politics diminishes the perspective of both sides. A row of upended signs inscribed in vinyl with owl-related snippets of Old Testament text is subjected to a process of degradation that impedes the signs’ legibility, leaving them recognizable only to those familiar with their source. This serves to thwart the “higher intellect” of the gallery-goer while flattering that of the evangelicals who are unlikely ever to set foot in here. For Bailey, this is exactly where we might begin to consider the difficulty of maintaining two opposed concepts in mind simultaneously, thereby at least preparing for a better day.

Jan Tumlir