in the garden by radcliffe bailey

“In the Garden” by Radcliffe Bailey

            My first reaction, upon seeing “In the Garden” by Radcliffe Bailey, was to question why such a work has been included in the Palmer Museum.  After all, it’s a fairly abstract work, and uses “photocopies of vintage photographs,” (Bailey), rather than original photographs, or even the artist’s own brush strokes as the focal point of the image.   Earth tones, black-and-white pictures, (some glossed over with even more earth tones), make the overall work come across as bland and unremarkable.  The use of shapes was too abstract for me to be able to identify with, and the single star shape, (as opposed to the rest of the shapes, which are all squares and rectangles), felt out of place and appeared to have no significance.  In addition to lacking any compelling colors, the work is also almost completely devoid of more traditional painting techniques of which I was aware.

            During my research of the artist and this painting, however, I began to realize that there is a great deal more to this work than can be gleaned at first glance.  I was surprised to learn about the tremendous influence of Jazz music on his artwork, according to SolomonProjects, in which the artist himself states, “I would draw comparisons to a jazz musician’s search for a certain sound, riff or rhythm, through acts of improvisation” (About the Artist).  Looking at the piece, “In the Garden,” I could definitely see elements of improvisation, particularly regarding the use of photocopies of old pictures, and the apparently random placement of the star.  Still, I had my doubts regarding whether or not pure improvisation qualified as an aspect of museum-worthy art.

            While researching the artist ,I encountered evidence that his use of photocopies is improvisational, like Jazz, but that it also contains a great deal of feeling and personal significance for him.  According to SolomonProjects, “The artist works by patterning together vintage photographs, objects he collects, and painted words and maps in a multi-layered narrative, which explores both the history of African Americans, as well as Bailey’s own personal history and influences” (About the Artist).  The addition of this personal feeling and significance to the otherwise apparently random use of artifacts gives more significance and meaning to the work, making it more worthy of a place on museum walls.

            Having my initial dislike of the painting called into question, I went back to the work itself and looked more closely.  While the overall composition appears bland from a distance, there are a few surprises hidden in plain sight.  For example, one of the rectangles directly above the central photograph is a shade of brilliant blue (Bailey).  This blue rectangle is even more surprising than the star shape, and far less obvious.  It is the only one of the rectangles in the entire painting that is not some shade of green or grayish-brown.  This single rectangle of unusual color stands out to me now like a beacon, and calls attention to all sorts of highlights and lowlights throughout the painting that I had not noticed before.  Unexpected use of color, I realize, is a subtle way to draw attention to the minute details of a painting that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.

            My initial reaction to the apparent randomness of the abstract shapes, and the feeling that so little traditional style went into the work, was quickly staved off by further research.  According to Carol Brennan’s biography of Bailey, there is a great deal of rooting in established artistic tradition: “Few artists achieve such recognition and acclaim so early in their career, but critics have often remarked upon Bailey’s solid training in and incorporation of European-based artistic traditions, such as the geometric forms of Russian constructivism” (Brennan).  This geometric constructivism, once pointed out, is very clear to me, and the ties implied within the work, between past and present artistic methods, are very important to a museum’s collection.

            The realization that the shapes of the painting are much less random than I had initially thought encouraged me, once again, to look more closely at the painting.  I realized, after a few minutes of careful scrutiny, that no two of the rectangles or squares are the same size or shape.  While some of them are the same color, they are all unique in terms of their shape.  This, I decided, could serve as a metaphor for individual people.  The painting, obviously dealing with issues of race, calls to mind with these rectangles of individual size and shape, that even though one might belong to a specific color group, it is still unique from the rest, and should be viewed as such.

            Bailey himself states that interconnectedness of time, people, and places is very important.  He tries to convey this in his work, as described by faculty of the University of Georgia, where he teaches: “Bailey’s work is famous for the vital connections it makes: between art and life, people and the land, ancestors and their descendants” (Giving Back).  This interconnectedness is apparent not only in the overlapping of artistic techniques, but also in the overlapping of shapes and images and artistic media in the painting.  Once this was clear to me, the entire work itself, I realized, is a metaphor for this vital interconnectedness.

            Ultimately, I’ve realized that there is a great more to this work than meets the eye.  If any other artwork lacks initial appeal, it would be wise to be more well-versed in international artistic techniques, and to have a greater understanding of the artist responsible for the work.  Art, like literature or music, often has as much to do with the personal feelings of the artist as the cultural significance of the work.  Art, therefore, is not objective, and should not be viewed as such.  In the case of Radcliffe Bailey’s “In the Garden,” the work deals with issues of race, nationality, culture, and tradition all at once.  Due to my research, I have come to the conclusion that any work that conveys these issues,  so carefully woven–or should I say–painted together, is a perfect example of the kind of art that any museum should be proud to have upon its walls.

Works Cited

            “About the Artist.” SolomonProjects. 28 Apr. 2009

            Bailey, Radcliffe. “In the Garden.” Radcliffe Bailey. 2003. Paulson Press. 28 Apr. 2009

            Brennan, Carol. “Life’s Work.” Black Biography. 2006. 28 Apr. 2009


            “Giving Back: Painter and Professor Radcliffe Bailey.” University of Georgia. 8 June                              2005. 28 Apr. 2009 <http://www.uga.edu/aboutUGA/learn-radcliffe.html>.

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