Radcliffe Bailey and Miroslav Antic: Two Worlds and a Family Album at Polk Museum of Art

click to enlarge JOURNEY TO THE NEW WORLD: A family tree emerges in Radcliffe Bailey's nod to the West African diaspora, "Black Belt." - Courtesy Of The Artist
Courtesy Of The Artist
JOURNEY TO THE NEW WORLD: A family tree emerges in Radcliffe Bailey's nod to the West African diaspora, "Black Belt."

Plenty of artists explore memories through their work, but only the great ones figure out a way to plumb personal experience for universal themes. Atlanta-based artist Radcliffe Bailey, whose prints and mixed-media paintings are currently on exhibit at the Polk Museum of Art, is among the latter.

Combining antique photographs — mostly portraits, some drawn from family collections, others serendipitous finds — with layers of abstract shapes and painterly gestures, gampi (a thin rice paper) and other materials, Bailey invokes the patchwork of perception and memory that constitutes any life.

Swatches of smooth velvet framing a tuxedoed man surrounded by arcane symbols and burned paper; a lovingly dressed child nested amid painted waves and a footprint. The visual mix mirrors the complexity of a subject he tackles again and again: the fragmented experience of the Black Atlantic diaspora and the descendents of slaves disconnected from their cultural and spiritual roots in Ghana, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Senegal.

Rarely does Bailey know their stories in a literal sense. Instead, he intuits and imagines where they might have come from and what they might have been through (a process abetted by historical research). Instead of an individual person, he invites viewers to contemplate an idea or feeling: hope, danger, integrity, love.

In all, about two dozen of Bailey's prints line the walls at the Lakeland museum. The artist likens each one to a jazz improvisation, in which he riffs on an image; the result, he says, should be a tune that both art-world insiders and the average person can appreciate. "I mix all those different things together, trying to speak in a way that people can relate to," he says. "We live in a collage culture where we put things together."

For Bailey, who turned 40 earlier this month, to remain so committed to accessibility even as institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art have collected his work might be surprising. More or less a native of Atlanta, he's content to call the Southern city home base and be free of New York's distractions, tough a smart Big Apple gallery represents his work.

In three large-scale paintings — the standouts of the exhibit — Bailey hits on an even more transcendent theme. Jettisoning the photographs, he takes on the massive interconnectivity at the core of diasporic identity through abstraction alone. In "Gorée" — inspired by the artist's visit to the Senegalese port through which slaves from Sierra Leone passed — networks of black and red lines (suggestive of both voyages and family trees) overlap a smattering of colorful boat forms that appear to sail through the painting's dark night. With Black Belt, he crafts a visual response to learning that most African-Americans in the South are descended from West Africans. In both paintings, glittering patches of a substance like black sand or ground gemstones add seductive richness and an element of mystique.

The result is a show worth seeing — and remembering.

In a separate exhibit, the Polk complements Bailey's body of work with a selection of paintings by South Florida-based artist Miroslav Antic, a longtime Boston resident originally from Yugoslavia. In the paintings, Antic painstakingly reproduces old family photos at large scale but prevents viewers from fully entering into the photorealist illusion by painting a layer of dots or water drops on the image surface. As a result, we are made cognizant of the act of looking. Unconscious self-projection into the image or narrative musings are thwarted; instead, viewers may contemplate the odd sensation of déjà vu or nostalgia inspired by looking at photographs of a bygone era, even when the images feature people who are strangers. Despite being held at arm's length by the artist, it's difficult not to revel in the soft beauty of Antic's depictions of, say, his mother (at various ages) or the lithe bodies of men on a fishing trip.

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