Radcliffe Bailey draws from dark history to push his own art forward

Atlanta’s can take pride in homegrown talent on display at High

Radcliffe Bailey: Memory as Medicine at the High Museum is like a light flicking on in a dark room, revealing a treasure that was hidden in your attic all along.

Raised in Atlanta, Bailey attended the now-defunct Atlanta College of Art on the Woodruff Arts Center campus and has finally ascended that most difficult of hurdles: making his way into his hometown museum. For longtime residents, it’s almost impossible not to feel a rush of pride at this exhibition with its sense of scope and consideration of a locally grown artist-hero.

The exhibition’s timeline ranges from early work, such as 1993’s “Seven Steps East,” done soon after the artist graduated from ACA in 1991, to work of a very recent vintage, such as the inspired installation piece “Windward Coast,” in which a man’s head is lost in a sea of hundreds of piano keys. It’s a show-stopper, full of churning emotion. It lacks some of the sense of cataclysm it had when stuffed into the smaller space of Bailey’s Atlanta gallery, Solomon Projects. But it benefits, as does all the work, from the call and response it offers when seen next to so much other work in this conceptually tight but comprehensive-feeling show.

Memory as Medicine’s greatest strength may be its accessibility. Bailey has an ethereal, feather-light touch with heady material, as in “Destination Unknown,” which ticks off the days of a ship’s passage in hand-drawn hatch marks. The mixed-media work incorporates the weighty materials of indigo and tobacco and includes a haunting photograph of African-Americans laboring in the field. The subject matter is emotionally weighty, but the human mark-making and the beautifully subdued color palette of blues, contrasted with yellowed documents, is so intimate you can’t help but move in close. With their wooden armature and Plexiglas surfaces, Bailey’s monumental creations give the feeling of looking into a window or a shadow box reliquary.

The exhibit’s biggest shocker is how continuous the line from youth to maturity has been for Bailey. Standing before the works often feels like holding a color-crazed kaleidoscope, whose kinetic patterns keep changing though the essential motifs of the past, family and the cosmos, remain constant. Bailey may have only recently discovered glitter, but the material’s sense of movement and cosmic magic was felt in the vibrant, pulsating bands of reds, greens and cobalt blues that animated his early assemblages and works on panel.

A communal past mixes with a personal one in a series inspired by Bailey’s tracing of his DNA back to the Mende region of Sierra Leone. In “Stride,” a supersized, glitter-encrusted double helix resides in a wonderfully retro, Victorian dime museum case. Nearby, a drawing of a Mende figure in a tintype case where an antiquated photo of a buttoned-up, unsmiling family member would normally go brings a vast history closer to home.

For some artists, the overwhelmingly dire content of slavery evoked in Bailey’s themes of passage from Africa to America, and the universal passage he evokes in boats and the cosmos from the world of the living to the world of the infinite, might burden their work. But Bailey’s perspective is airborne, humanistic, full of hope. He takes the South’s legacy of slavery (the proverbial elephant in the room) and, instead of a bottomless gulf of pain, finds healing and wisdom.

Take 2010’s “Western Current,” a watercolor of a roiling sea carrying a boat across the ocean. Inside the boat is a collage of wooden African statues. The work is both potent and whimsical: It shows the passage of an entire culture from one land to the next, or perhaps some ancestors determined to stage a Blaxploitation coup d’état in the new land, with ancestry represented by humanoid stand-ins.

Carol Thompson, the High’s curator of African art and of this show, elevates Bailey’s context from simply local-artist-done-good to provide a sense that we are connected in deep and rich ways to the past. Thompson has included several African sculptures in Memory as Medicine to show the influence on Bailey’s art of these Congolese wooden figures, with their glass eyes contemplating eternity and Mende figures, with their Nick Cave-ish bodies of raffia. In turn, Bailey’s more recent work done in anticipation of the High exhibition acknowledges the influence of the museum’s African art collection. Thompson, for her part, shows the profundity of the past, while Bailey makes history seem more relevant and alive.