Radcliffe Bailey on His New Abstractions: “I Always Thought the Surreal Was Real to Black People”

Nov 16, 2021 4:59 pm

In his new work Transbluency (2021), Atlanta-based artist Radcliffe Bailey combines materials such as burlap, flock, rubber, and steel, layering their variously textured surfaces behind glass within a nearly six-foot-tall frame. The jagged line at the top lip of a sheet of rusted steel suggests the shape of the Southern coastline stretching from Texas across the Gulf of Mexico and up and around to the Carolinas. In the upper portion of the work, numbers and other marks appear, as though hastily rendered in chalk or pastel. Formed by window tint adhered to the surface of the glass, dark rectangles float spectrally above these other elements. Like much of Bailey’s work, this opaque cabinet seems to contain strata of Black consciousness across time and space. In “Ascents and Echoes,” his exhibition on view at Jack Shainman in New York through December 18, the artist’s visual language takes a new turn, pushing toward invigorated abstraction with twelve recent works, largely eschewing the directly representational artifacts, such as family photographs, that have previously appeared in his work.

The public work he’s presenting in Atlanta (2021) is perhaps an even more dramatic departure for the artist. The stark, geometric, open-air amphitheater made of cast concrete is his first work at an architectural scale. It’s one of two new public commissions he’s completing this fall—the other is in Greensboro, North Carolina. A.i.A. caught up with the artist in his tree-shrouded home and studio in Atlanta, where he discussed his lifelong fascination with travel and the continued influence of music on his work.

LOGAN LOCKNER: Looking at the new work in your show, I’m immediately struck by your shift from using photographs as elements within the paintings into more full blown abstraction. What prompted that change?

RADCLIFFE BAILEY: [As a student, when I trained as a sculptor,] I made work that was somewhat minimal, and I only began working with photographs for personal reasons that had to do with my family, specifcally the loss of family members. I had all these photographs that were given to me by my grandmother and others, but I really didn’t know what to do with them. I always wanted to make work where I connected with my family, and I didn’t want to speak over them or around them—I wanted to speak directly to them. It was always a way to bring along certain people with me.

But I also felt like I was dealing with two different worlds: one world of things that were tangible, and another world that was abstract and surreal. I always thought the surreal was real to Black people, and in that way, I wanted to represent these two different worlds. The abstraction in the paintings now—that was always a layer that existed in the earlier work, but I may have covered it up with a photograph. Now I’ve peeled back the layers, and I’m figuring out how to work in several different ways, as opposed to having the photograph as an anchor.

LOCKNER Music has always been present in your work. Alongside the new work, your show also includes Nommo, a sculpture that was originally shown in the 2019 Istanbul Biennial and includes audio such as a recorded composition by Sun Ra. How will music show up in this new body of work?

BAILEY Well, number one, I wish I was a musician. I have an upright bass in my studio just because it’s such a beautiful instrument, and I’ve always responded to the sound of bass. I listen to a lot of music from all around the world, particularly jazz. It puts me in a wonderful space; it almost feels like chess.

Sun Ra, who was from Alabama, “traveled the space ways,” as he said. (chuckles). One time, when traveling to Istanbul, Sun Ra performed [on a stage] in the back of a truck with his band, and they played as they rode through the streets. Things changed, but at the time I was making [Nommo], we discussed installing that piece in the old shipping yard, so the wood [for the structure of the sculpture] was gathered from there. But I was also thinking about [Sun Ra and his band on] this stage in the back of a truck. What you end up with are these busts in this sort of ship-like structure, [which is also like a stage]. The work touches on slavery, but I always want to take [that conversation] in a different direction, where it’s really about the spirituality of the people and their practices, celebrating who they are and the way in which they’re looking into other realms.

LOCKNER How has thinking about music and space informed the public work that you’re completing at Cascade Springs Nature Preserve in Atlanta?

BAILEY That nature preserve is on old Civil War grounds, near an old quarry and a spring. It’s also my backyard, and it’s in the neighborhood that I grew up in as a kid. I grew up in the years after the civil rights movement, when former mayors, ambassadors, and famous ballplayers all lived here. It’s always felt like a beautiful community, and I wanted to honor that.

I also wanted to go back to these performances from my childhood where we would go see people like Sun Ra and Miles Davis play in public spaces and parks, and the city would roll out this traveling stage for them to use. [For this public work,] I wanted to create [a structure] that was a little more permanent, where people could actually come and perform.

LOCKNER The Freedom Cornerstone, your new public work in Greensboro, North Carolina, takes the form of railroad tracks, another recurring motif in your work. In this case, the tracks rise from a base like a monumental column, holding aloft a neon star. Could you speak about the endurance of railroad tracks in your work and what that image means to you?

BAILEY I’ve spoken about my family being involved in the Underground Railroad [in helping formerly enslaved people find their way North], but also, when I was a kid, my father was a railroad engineer, and we would often visit our family members [by train]. I’ve always been fascinated by different forms of travel—by sea, by train, or into outer space and other realms.