In a review in NUMBER: THREE, made a few aside comments that were in response (or in expansion) to comments made by Fredric Koeppel, the art critic for The Commercial Appeal (Memphis' only daily newspaper). concluded my comments with the sentiment that commercial galleries in this city and this region need to take a few serious risks in the art they exhibit-not simply risks in subject matter, but in the entire concept that traditionally defines "Art".
Assuming that exhibits are scheduled well in advance, it is apparent that the Alice Bingham Gallery was a few steps ahead of my challenge. In a town where even the safest vestiges of formalist Modernism are viewed as suspect and "avant garde", David William Bailin's paintings are a definite departure and commercial risk. This exhibit not only answers my challenge, but exceeds any expectations had for the foreseeable future. My hat is off to you, Ms. Bingham. am impressed and pleased (but don't confuse that with "placated"...).
These paintings are accomplished, the products of a deft hand, a practiced eye and a refined intellect. But these may also be difficult paintings for those unfamiliar with recent thought in art and philosophy–and especially to those who are still uncomfortable with the final "antiart" stages of Modernism. Bailin's pictures are not concerned with traditional art-making. Traditional concerns such as color, composition, draftsmanship and painterliness are utilized-but only insofar as they question their own validity as artistic concerns. In spite of how much I despise the term, this is a very good example of PostModernist art.
And, since it is the first such example to be seen in a commercial gallery in Memphis, it serves as a primary lesson in Post-Modernist art and thought to the Memphis audience. Many critics, locally and nationally, see Post-Modernism (in terms of its most obvious visual results) as regressive and retrograde. This is often true, especially in the clumsy and shallow egocentricities of some of its most famous practitioners (Julian Schnabel being the prime example).
On the other side of the Post-Modernist coin–and unfortunately often lumped into the same category-are the more thoughtful and intellectual of the breed, the heirs to Conceptualism and Deconstruction (David Salle being the prime example). David Bailin falls into this classification.
One of the criticisms I overheard about Bailin's work was its too obvious derivation from Salle. It is true-there are obvious similarities; the most obvious being the technique of layering imagery, of over laying disparate images one over the other. But Salle is not the only artist to use this technique; it is also employed by his contemporaries-Anselm Kiefer, Robert Longo and David Wojnarowicz. Nor is Salle the first to use this technique. The idea of overlapping one image with another is not a Post-Modernist idea; its origins are in Dada, Duchamp and double exposure photography. Its art-historic predecessors include Francis Picabia, Francis Bacon, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. All in all, I would consider Bailin in good and well-proven company.
Bailin's paintings are rife with disparate imagery and philoso-poetic titles. All of the paintings are oil on paper, all roughly the same size and format. The basic pictorial formula involves 1) an empty land scape, 2) a figure or two painted on top of the landscape, and 3) a sketchily painted drawing superimposed over the composition.
This description is simplistic but accurate for most of the works this exhibit. The underlying landscapes, the first element in the paintings, are broadly rendered and excellent examples of expressionist landscape painting in their own right (especially In Profound Issues Become Invisible in Ordinary Clothes). These landscapes, however, serve only as backdrops-theatrical sets, almost upon which the action (or lack thereof) and the narrative of the painting take place. The figures, which are the second element of the formula, are superimposed over this "finished" landscape. I say "superimposed" because the figures are not part of the scene; they stand a few imaginary feet in front of the landscape, they cast no shadow, they float above the background. Just as they would upon a stage before a painted backdrop. They are merely actors in the scene.
The only painting in this exhibit which displays any real relation between the figures and the landscape is In the Presence of Serious Things. In this picture, two figures seem to be walking to nonchalantly away from an encroaching tornado; even so, the figures are rendered in such a way as to place that imaginary distance between them and the "backdrop".
The third element of these paintings is perhaps the most difficult. Upon the surface of each composition, spoiling even the hint of a three-dimensional rendering, is a roughly sketched drawing of a totally disparate image. This is the technique that is so similar to that of David Salle. It is also the technique, the concept, that drops these paintings squarely in the same court with the Post-Modernists, that makes them more than a bit alien to the average art viewer in Memphis.
What are these pictures of? In How She Met God, we see a little girl and a floating putto blowing a trumpet. In Plato's Sand box, a little girl and a house float at an almost equal distance from the landscape backdrop; a sketchy desk is super imposed over this composition-on the desk is a model of the same house. In Are There Any Messages Without Codes?, a man holds a child in one arm and a statue of a child in the other, while a spectral bookcase looms unthreateningly over the landscape. Previously mentioned, In the Presence of Serious Things presents a sketchy plumb-bob device overlaying the casually escaping tornado victims. "
What do these paintings mean?"
I can hear the question hanging in the air as I look at them, psychic remnants floating tensely, confusedly, in the still of the empty gallery. What do they mean? Nothing. Everything. Whatever meaning the viewer chooses to assign them. Most viewers have only recently learned to do this with non-objective art, to project a meaning of their own upon an object which exists on its own and has no inherent meaning. This is more difficult, a new thing to ask, when it concerns figurative art. The average viewer feels that a picture has to mean something; if it's a picture of something, of several somethings even, it has to have a meaning.
The fictitious space that is created by a figurative painting usually allows the viewer an entrance, or at least a window, into a somewhat believable "world". By layering and overlapping the figurative elements in his paintings, Bailin denies the viewer access to this world. He forces the viewer to approach the painting on its own terms, as an object rather than a simple picture.
It is inevitable that viewers will look for hidden meanings in these paintings-and perhaps they actually exist in the mind of the artist. But the viewer will never find them; the viewer is not meant to find them. The viewer is not meant to find or even look for a hidden meaning; he is meant to see a layering of different levels of meaning.
Just as there is another picture under neath every picture, there is also a meaning beneath every meaning. By layering his imagery and his meanings, Bailin's paintings are no longer "windows" to a fictional world. They are not natural and simple objects-they are events that involve the viewer in their meaning.
Once again, the roots of such thought are prePost-Modernism. Joseph Kosuth, the Godfather of Conceptualism, stated the same thesis:
That cancellation of habituated experience which makes language visible also forces the viewer/reader to realize their own subjective role in the meaning-making process. 1
Kosuth was speaking language, words, as visual and conceptual imagery–as being placed in an antithetical position, looming large on a gallery wall instead of intimately tucked away in the pages of a book. The same thought holds true for the pictorial image, displaced and super imposed over another and different pictorial image. Which image do you look at? And, if you look at both at the same time, which is more important? How do they relate? Or do they?
This technique, this concept, also falls well into the bounds of Post-Modern thought-Post-Structuralism, Deconstruction, whatever you wish to call it. In this sense, the fragmented or overlapped image serves to oppose the "pure" sign, the literal image-to act in the conceptual space that lies between the signifier and the signified (the image and its literary meaning). The art object is thus destructured, the viewer is dislocated, the Modernist order is decentered and thus brought into question.
Okay, this is very much oversimplified But I'm no philosopher and this is just a review. As a reviewer, let me say that David Bailin's paintings are informed and intelligent works of art. Works of art that question the viewer's knowledge and perception. That question the viewer's actual role in the work of art. That question art itself. And, isn't that exactly what I asked for?
On the other hand, as an artist myself and as a thinking individual, I have some problems with Post-Modern thought and Deconstruction and all that stuff. It all boils down to too many signs and signifiers too many questions, to the point where even "sign" and "signifier" are brought into question. Kind of like beating the proverbial dead horse. Kind of like, "You can call me Ray or you can call me...' Or you can call me artist or you can call me critic or you can call me philosopher.
Whatever you call it, David Bailin's paintings are heady stuff, powerful and thought-provoking images. The sort of stuff that Memphis sees far too rarely. The sort of stuff that may even make Memphis think.
–Joseph Kosuth, "Notes on Cathexis'". The Making of Meaning, pg. 31 (Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, 1981).