Personal history

Radcliffe Bailey installation evokes nostalgia, reverence


Waves breaking on a beach are the first sounds that draw the visitor into the world of Radcliffe Bailey's Spiritual Migration at the Atlanta College of Art Gallery. Entering the space, one comes upon a fluid shrine. More than 50 clear glass jugs half-filled with water are arrayed in the shape of a pirogue or an island. On opening night, many of the vessels held burning votive candles in their throats. Large misty photographs of deep bends in a slow, wide river evoke gospel songs. The slim vase beneath a woman's full-length photo-portrait holds a bird of paradise (Bailey's aunt's favored flower). Next to the bloom stands a small jar of honey covered in melted wax. To one side, an earthen jar of water holds colored stones, like a poor man's wishing well.

The sounds of a train passing nearby beckon the traveler into a larger space where a long, white wall is filled with stenciled train tracks. Edging those curved shapes, the names of towns appear: St. Louis, Natchez, Nashville, Charleston, Chicago.

At the far reach of the room, the scratched photo of a tobacco field (his grandfather's field) comes to life in a low-lying shelf of fragrant tobacco leaves. Names of other towns are lettered at intervals on that bitter green wall: Vernon, Georgia, Vuelta Abajo, Cuba and Chesapeake, Va. Around the room, smaller shelves hold more Southern memories - more tobacco leaves, raw cotton, a bundle of sugar cane, oil lamps, an anvil, stakes and horse shoes. Big, faded photos depict train workers and black travelers boarding passenger trains. Small glass cases on pedestals hold dried beetles, their carapaces painted with white runes.

The chirping of insects rises in the air as the sounds of the train fades away. Then the viewer notices a high shelf with two bottles of rum and a half-smoked cigar. To the left, a jar of red and black jelly beans, a black-and-red satin jockey flag, a jar of dried red peppers. To the right, a calabash, a model train car and again, raw cotton. The top hat of a black dandy and a mound of dried corn materializes next to his life-sized photo.

Radcliffe Bailey's pictures have always told stories. Viewers never escape the pull of family history in his multi-media paintings. African masks and symbols, vintage family photos, postcards, ledgers and letters have been key elements in his work. Early success has led the young African-American artist to solo shows from New Orleans to New York. His paintings have been collected by North Carolina's Mint Museum, the High, the Smithsonian and the Art Institute of Chicago.

With Spiritual Migration, the ACA graduate has transcended the limits of two-dimensional space. He's separated his layered ideas and brought them to life at an experiential level. Fusing sight, sound and smell, the environment evokes curiosity, nostalgia and reverence. The effect is an immersive aesthetic experience.

The artist is hesitant to explain too much of his rationale, preferring instead to let the viewer interpret the signs and signifiers. According to curator Rebecca Dimling Cochran, "There's not a simple answer as to why he's selected these materials or their placement. There isn't a linear history."

Says Bailey, "It's about me as an artist and a person. It was a conversation I had with myself." The personal and universal resonance in Spiritual Migration is a dialogue well worth sharing.

Radcliffe Bailey's Spiritual Migration continues at the Atlanta College of Art Gallery, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St., through Aug. 13. Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun noon-5 p.m. 404-733-5050.??

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