Radcliffe Bailey (American, born 1973), 'Exodus,' 2002. Resin, acrylic, clay, photographs, and Plexiglas on wood, 80 by 80 by 4 inches. Museum Purchase

Radcliffe Bailey (American, born 1973)

Exodus, 2002
Resin, acrylic, clay, photographs, and Plexiglas on wood
80 x 80 x 4 in.
Museum Purchase

Radcliffe Bailey’s dense multimedia works interweave narrative fragments of African American history with the artist’s own experiences as a black man. Typically, he creates a complex layering of painted marks, written words, photographs, found objects, glitter, dirt, and resin to form an associative collage. Bailey likens his improvisational method to practicing and performing jazz. Producing several works simultaneously, he builds a layer on one and then moves on to others before returning to add the next layer. Balancing quick and slower tempos, he allows for both spontaneity and reflection.

In 1999, Bailey completed seven untitled eighty-by-eighty-by-five-inch works mounted on wooden panels; they are collectively known as the Kindred series. Each panel holds a centralized photograph culled from Bailey’s grandmother’s collection of family tintypes and from his own images of African sculptures. Set into the panel behind a sheet of Plexiglas, these photographs are surrounded by the artist’s signature web of painted and collaged elements. Each piece in the series honors a different aspect of African American history.

The Ulrich Museum commissioned Bailey to create a similar work, this one honoring the history of African Americans in Kansas. After doing research at the Kansas African American Museum in Wichita, he produced Exodus. Like works in the Kindred series, this one is richly inlaid with symbols both historically and personally specific.

Across the wide border of Exodus, a complex network of meandering lines recalls branches, roots, rivers, and roads as they weave over and under rectangular patches that suggest quilt blocks and plots of land. The title is contained in a patch at the lower left, and the date 1879 appears at the upper right. Together these elements refer to the so-called Exodus of 1879, when some 6,000 African Americans fled white oppression in the South. Many of them settled in Kansas, encouraged by the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered individuals titles to parcels of undeveloped land for farming, and by the state’s legacy as a pre-Civil War bastion of the anti-slavery movement. The photograph at the center is an enlarged vintage image of men who might well have been descendents of people who arrived in 1879: African American members of the Wichita YMCA Orchestra and Glee Club.

Bailey’s choice of photograph acknowledges both the significant role music has played in African American history and the artist’s own relationship to that history and to music itself. In other works, he has paid tribute to jazz legends Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. Of his own visually syncopated style, he has frequently said, "What I do may not even be called art. It may be called music."(1) Other facets of Exodus are personally meaningful, too: the pale green color repeated across the panel refers to Bailey’s grandfather’s favorite room, and the butterfly is a loving nod to the artist’s young daughter.(2) By incorporating personal symbols in a painting about Kansas, Bailey, who lives in Georgia, recognizes his connection to a larger historical narrative and celebrates culture’s evolution from an amalgam of both individual and collective stories.

--Emily Stamey, Ulrich Museum curator of modern and contemporary art

1. Bailey quoted in Mason Klein, "Radcliffe Bailey at Jack Shainman Gallery," Artforum 38, no. 6 (February 2000): 121.
2. Terrie Sultan, "Rhapsody in Orange," in Radcliffe Bailey: The Magic City, exh. cat. (Birmingham, Ala.: Birmingham Museum of Art, 2001), 26–27.