The preserved crocodile carcass, pinned against a ratty tarp to form the centerpiece of a work called On Your Way Up, is as good a place as any to begin a review of Radcliffe Bailey’s exhibition Maroons at Jack Shainman gallery. Though purportedly on the ascent, this climber has clearly seen better days; its exposed finger bones, protruding between disintegrated flesh, seem unlikely to carry it very far. The gesture exudes a Dadaist absurdity that unites many of the works in this show. It may also present a whiff of home for the Atlanta-based artist, whose practice routinely confronts the heritage of the American South in both its revolting (e.g., slavery) and enlivening (e.g., jazz) aspects. All of the above draw a viewer further and further into the work, right up until the point at which its metaphor-in-waiting, vague but palpably present, becomes impossible to avoid—then, how quickly the work deflates.
Most of the works in Maroons share the seemingly scavenged, pawnshop constitution of On Your Way Up. Not always is the approach fruitful. A piece consisting of a chunk of white coral mounted on a plane of black sand, in which appear the outlines of a dagger, ship, and ladder, abides the poetry of a light-dark contrast and seemingly little else. Several works, however, are startlingly charged—if, like the croc, only temporarily so. Wicker baskets brimming with shards of glass surround a model 19th-century cargo ship in Vessel; a wooden door, gold-leafed by the artist, bears an inordinately massive, medieval-looking lock in Fourth Ward; Congo suggests an ashen version of the Democratic Republic’s flag: five-point stars strewn irregularly across a blackened tarp, before which hangs a trio of disembodied wooden limbs. One hardly needs to spell out the gruesome resonances underlying these images. They prove the potential for a powerful symbology to be found in the odds and ends at Bailey’s disposal, even if they threaten to bottom out in allegories that fly too easily into the viewer’s grasp.
Existing writing on Bailey invariably situates the artist’s project as a racial one, concerned as it is with working through personal memory in relation to the African American experience writ large (not that the two can really be de-conflated). In Maroons, a group of three small collage and gouache works on sheet music announce the artist’s racial background most explicitly, depicting, for example, West African tribal masks in one and an elderly black woman raising a sword á la Liberty Leading the People in another. They are in a way emblematic of the exhibition’s title: In their exuberant color, gestural dynamism, and graphic appeal, they are marooned amid the doom and gloom of the surrounding assemblage. While the gallery clearly prods us to view the latter as providing the exhibition’s heft, the lighter pieces hung in the hallway hint at what the leaden centerpieces lack; namely, the lubricant image play that gives rise to slipperiness of meaning—between personal memory and collective history, perhaps—that has animated Bailey’s art in the past.
Maroons runs through February 15 at Jack Shainman Gallery.