Bailey, Radcliffe 1968–

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Radcliffe Bailey 1968


Uncanny Silence

A Transatlantic Canvas

Art That Bridges Class and Race

Music as Metaphor

Selected exhibitions


The works of Atlanta-based artist Radcliffe Bailey have earned the young painter comparisons with other African-American artists, including Romare Bearden and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Baileys uneven carpentry, smeared paint, and weathered objects function as window dressing for an examination of the environmental moorings that shape black culture, wrote Anastasia Aukeman in ARTnews. Thousands see one of Baileys most arresting works when they pass through Atlantas Hartsfield International Airport, the second-busiest terminal in the world; it was hung in time for the 1996 Olympic Summer Games.

Few artists achieve such recognition and acclaim so early in their career, but critics have often remarked upon Baileys solid training in and incorporation of many European-based artistic traditions, such as the geometric forms of Russian constructivism, along with his ability to bring in subtle, but provoking ideas reflecting the African American experience to his art. His stance makes it possible for many different kinds of people to relate to his work, wrote Joe Lewis in Art in America.

Bailey was born in New Jersey in 1968. As a child, he spent time with his grandfather, a blacksmith. The birdhouses the two made together helped spark in Bailey both a love of creative work and an appreciation for everyday objects. Choosing to pursue art as a career, he attended the Atlanta College of Art, from which he received a B.F. A. in 1991. His first brush with celebrity, however, came as a result of his appearances in two 1992 video clips from the musical group Arrested Development; Bailey made cameos in songs for both Mr. Wendal and Tennessee. He also remained in the Atlanta area and began pursuing a career as serious painter.

Uncanny Silence

Much of Baileys work begins with vintage sepia-tone photographs of African Americans from decades past; many of them were given to him by his grandmother. Bailey works them into mixed-media collages on wood or canvas that incorporate other found objects and thick bands of bright colorbut the photos give a decidedly human dimension to his work. In the New Orleans publication Gambit Weekly, D. Eric Bookhardt wrote of their impact: Formally posed and attired, they return our gaze with the impassive eyes of those who have seen much but are in no great rush to talk about it. Instead, it is their uncanny silence that speaks to us.

Doors are also another symbolic object that appear frequently in Baileys works; sometimes he constructs a canvas to resemble an entire dwelling. His use of weatherbeaten wood reminds the viewer of sharecropper lean-tos in the Deep South and other ramshackle buildings. Critics have often commented upon Baileys adept evocation of the Old South in his art, his ability to effortlessly summon up the intergenerational character

At a Glance

Born in 1968, in NJ. Education: Atlanta College of Art, B.F.A., 1991.

Career: Artist, 1991.

Addresses: Home Atlanta, GA. Gallery David Beitzel Gallery, 102 Prince St., New York, NY 10012.

and mood of this region of the United Statesan ethos that includes superstition, racial turmoil, deterioration, and regeneration, as Aukeman pointed out in ART-news. Upon his canvases Bailey has also sometimes laid tar (once a hate-crime ingredient) and cotton, the crop which depended on legalized slavery for its ability to turn a profit.

A Transatlantic Canvas

Baileys range of artistic materials echoes his African American heritage. The colors he uses are often bright and almost tropical in intensity. He also uses them in thick strokes, which in some cases appear as ritualistic curved lines that recall the old wrought-iron grillwork found in Haiti and New Orleans, wrote Bookhardt in Gambit Weekly. Often he brings nkisi, African votive figurines, onto his canvases.

Within a few years Baileys growing body of work had found admirers. In 1994, he was invited to participate in a group exhibition titled Equal Rights & Justice at the High Museum in Atlanta. He also signed on with a prominent Atlanta dealer, the Fay Gold Gallery. ART-news reviewer Amy Jinkner-Lloyd found his first show at Fay Gold praiseworthy, especially for his exploration of African-American themes with a restraint which is remarkable for such a young artist. She found fault only with one work, For Four Little Girls, Birmingham, Alabama, which, like most of Baileys art, serves to commemorate a specific moment in historyin this case, the church firebombing deaths of four girls during the worst days of the civil-rights struggle in the 1960s.

Bailey has also expanded into more three-dimensional confines with the occasional piece of sculpture. In the 1994 show, one of these was an anvil covered with shards of mirrora piece, Jinkner-Lloyd asserted, that entices visually. It also suggests savagery decorated with civility, which she considered a fitting symbol for the history of race relations throughout the course of American history.

Art That Bridges Class and Race

Baileys 1995 solo show at Fay Gold was critiqued by Art in Americas Lewis. He termed Baileys works culturally literate and introspective without being sentimental, and singled out The Magic City in particular as evidence of Baileys talents. This mixed-media work, 8 by 12 feet in dimension, recalls a dilapidated shack; onto it Bailey has worked in branding marks from an iron, a reference to one of the slave eras more barbaric practices. Yet the work also incorporates other, less gruesome, symbols from African-American culture, such as a team emblem from one of the Negro League baseball teams that thrived in the first half of the twentieth century. Lewis found effusive praise for Baileys work in his Art in America review, especially in light of the relatively youthful artists sensitive handling of cultural themes. Baileys paintings and sculptures, wrote Lewis, are what I hoped the 90s would bringan art that bridges class and race. Pop singer Elton John also found favor with Baileys art, buying a work from the Gold Gallery as a result of attending one of the artists first shows. In a dramatic honor, one of Baileys worksa large 40 by 12 foot muralwas selected to welcome visitors at in a hall at Atlanta main airport just in time for the 1996 Summer Olympics in that city.

Not surprisingly, Baileys career has taken him to the center of the art world. New York Citys David Beitzel Gallery has represented him since 1995. At a spring 1997 show there, Bailey showed several large mixed-media pieces. Mound Magician was fan-shaped, a baseball diamond with baseballs embedded in it, slashed by yellow, black and red stripes of paint. Other works, smaller in dimension, took the shape of musical instrumentsMingus, for instance, looked like a bass fiddle. Another, Black and Tan, resembled a grand piano suspended from a wall with orange, yellow and black color chords predominating. In place of a keyboard at the top, however, Bailey had instead put in flickering electric candles, an effect which pleased critic David Ebony; in his review, published on the web site, Ebony declared, this work, and the show as a whole, is exhilarating music for the eye.

Music as Metaphor

Art in Americas Calvin Reid also reviewed the Bailey show at David Beitzel, and found it impressive in both execution and scope. Splattered by energetic brush patterns, portentous inscriptions and a spooky evocation of historical triumph, these works record a potent convergence of Pan African romanticism, downhome black mythology and the antic hipsterism of black American urban life, Reid declared. In 1997, Bailey was also invited to contribute to As Time Goes By: History, Memory, and Sentimentality at the Stamford, Connecticut branch of New Yorks famed Whitney Museum. Bailey sent Shango and Soular Taps, both of which continued the theme of incorporating vintage photographs; in this case, he used images of infants.

Bailey lives in a loft in Atlantas warehouse district, which is stacked with found objects that will someday find their way into his work. In his Art in America review, Lewis pointed to Baileys appropriation of found objects into his works as evidence of the artists solid grounding in the modernist traditions of twentieth-century art, but with a new twist; Lewis likened Baileys ultimate visual patterns to the use of samples in modern hip-hop musicBailey creates real time within old space, Lewis declared. The artist himself has used also the rhythms of African American culture as a metaphor on more than one occasion. I like to think of my artworks as similar to the music of Thelonius Monk, Bailey told Aukeman in ARTnews. Theyre like rituals that just happen. In an interview with Vibes Kevin Powell a year later, Bailey stated, Im like free jazz. Im not concerned about where Im going, just as long as Im moving forward and documenting life.

Selected exhibitions

As Time Goes By (solo), Whitney Museum, Stamford, CT 1997.



Art in America, March 1995, p. 110; February 1998, p. 103

ARTnews, April 1994, p. 180; November 1995, p. 112.

Gambit Weekly (New Orleans), October 27, 1997.

New York Times, July 27, 1997; December 24, 1997.

Vibe, August 1996.


David Baileys New York Top Ten, published at

Carol Brennan