Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Somber Notes at the CAC

Radcliffe Bailey: Recent Works, the latest exhibition at the Contemporary Art Center in New Orleans takes over the first floor of the venue. The show assembles six large new wall pieces and the eighth version of a site specific installation, Windward Coast. In addition, two works are set in the "oval gallery". The African American artist based in Atlanta keeps drawing his inspiration from the history of the Atlantic slave trade, espe-
cially the Middle Passage, music, and more recently, disasters.
Sounds of piano keys falling on the ground escape from a conch hung to the wall and a giant music stand supports a stack of wind instruments in a small space near the entrance, setting the tone for the exhibition. Music is also referred to in the next piece which fills the front of the main gallery and, viewed from the street, provides a great window display. Lost in the heap of wooden pieces, far away, a lonely black head covered with glitter bobbles in the middle of a sea of piano keys. The famous piece, Windward Coast, has already been much commented upon since its display for the exhibition Memory As Medicine at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in 2011. Conceptual art leaves plenty of leeway for interpretation, and I ventured into looking at the forlorn head as the artist himself.
Recent works fill the remaining space in the lobby of the Center. They include Clotilde, 2014 and Clotilde II, 2014, variations on the same subject. Both include a heavy coat of black sand covering objects like ropes, train tracks, cotton, a slave boat's replica, or toy-size railroad tracks. They refer to the scuttling of a slave ship in the Bay of Mobile in 1855 and are hung next to Black Night Falling, 2014, a graffiti of a sort. On a rough canvas, one can decipher the name of islands or countries (Haiti, Jamaica, Senegal, ...) or detect footprints, shadows, under a sliver of moon, surrounded by scribbles of heavy black paint. The next pair of works have a gory appearance with the preserved corpse of a crocodile for On Your Way Up, 2013, and dismembered doll's arms on a rubber backdrop for Congo, 2013,  alluding to "a surrogate crucifix", curios from European elites or the Nile River for the former and imperialist activities of Leopold II in Central Africa after the Berlin Conference in 1885 for the latter, according to the wall text. Comments related to the works are spread throughout the exhibition in an attempt to elicit a direct interaction with the viewers via social media like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
The predominant black color overshadows the exhibition filled with detailed historical references somewhat limiting the breath of the works. Over-inflated descriptions like "big things, large scale, minimalist, abstract sculptural works", "profound sense of serenity, with a hypnotic, repetitive aesthetic similar to Japanese rock gardens" or "Gargantuan" weaken the genuineness of the artist who also compares his studio to a church, a sacred space. His goal is to infuse a mythical dimension to historical events, ultimately give an Odyssean flavor to the sad slave trade. Conceptual art represents a challenge as a mean of narrating history. The flat sea of piano keys lacks energy, rhythm, "waves" and stays strangely silent. As a whole, the works trigger little emotions and lack vision for the future.
If any sound is coming out of the exhibition, it is a mournful tune.

photographs by the author:

" On Your Way Up", 2013
" If Bells Could Talk", 2015
" Windward Coast", 2009-2015

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