Bailin Studio


Washington's Profile

Catalog Essay

October 30, 2008

Leah Ollman

Suspended in the Great Expanse of the Present

The conformist makes a list of confessions, dates it, signs it. It doesn’t conform. Each entry is typed then struck through:
1. I admit that I like enclosed places without natural light.
5. I admit that I have habits of behavior.
8. I admit that objects in the room interfere with my behavior.

The list concludes with barbed ambiguity, at the awkward number eleven: Escape is binding.

Whose conflicted, self-effacing voice is this? David Bailin’s or the everyman he casts as the sole player in his drawn tableaux? Each, perhaps, speaks on behalf of the other, and both have something to say for the rest of us. Something about the way order masks vulnerability. Something about external controls on the chaos within.

In the list of confessions (which accompanied a 2007 exhibition) as in his visual work of the past decade or more, Bailin asserts and negates in the same breath. Every statement is both a clear proclamation and a struggle against its own significance, a relief and a spur. We settle in, only to be unsettled.

Bailin’s work in experimental theater in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s launched him on this path and nurtured this proclivity for disequilibrium born of the familiar. He wrote, directed and designed productions that were non-linear and non-narrative, but staged with utter concreteness. They undermined the logic of their own given form, presenting tenuously linked fragments for the audience to parse and assemble in the privacy of their individual minds. Decades later, Bailin makes drawings aiming for a comparable visceral impact, not always rational but never less than convincing.

The drawings read like staged scenes stripped of context, the characters suspended, as he puts it, in the great expanse of the present: A man tipping his watering can onto a box of belongings, one of many strewn like boulders across a grassy plain; A man whittling, the shavings accreting into a porous wave that rises like a self-made tide, lifting his own chair; A man gazing at his untied shoelace as a leafy branch pushes through a nearby window and up through the ceiling; A man standing atop an office desk, arching his back to see to the top of a towering stack of papers.

In the late 1990s, Bailin’s drawings stemmed from biblical stories that had troubled him as a child and apparently still evoked some unease—the tales of Noah, Cain, Job, Lot’s wife. The images contain multiple figures drawn on an epic scale and, judging by their clothing, set in the not-too-distant past. Bailin enacted a visible shift in tense, a temporal displacement that echoes the characters’ own internal ethical reckonings.

His interiors and landscapes made since then are as likely to resonate with texts by Eco or Borges as with anonymous images plucked from old magazines and newspapers. One drawing has its roots in an episode from the story of Winnie the Pooh. Bailin approaches each blank page as if a theatrical space to be occupied, activated. Each sheet becomes the site of a performance—Bailin’s own gestural charcoal dance and his character’s parallel search for a place, a form, a moment of reprieve.

The star of these stills would more likely be cast as an extra. Middle-aged and non-descript, he wears outdated business dress whether inside an office or outside in the middle of a field. His expression, on the rare occasion that we see it, is sober, neutral, no mirror to the irony, absurdity or futility of his situation. Often he is looking for a way through or a way out. In “Map,” the man crouches atop a large sheet of paper, plotting out a position or game plan or storyboard. In “Search,” he jots something down in a small notebook while dozens of books behind him spill from their shelves into butterflied heaps. In “Corner,” the man peers out of a small aperture he appears to have forced open in the back wall of a narrow, slightly claustrophobic space.

He is Buster Keaton’s earnest, hapless everyman, Franz Kafka’s oblivious victim. He is close cousin, too, to the business-suited character in Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison’s photographic series, “Architect’s Brother,” a man isolated in a stark landscape, striving to shape some kind of personal as well as global survival. Bailin treats his unheroic hero with tenderness and respect, with a knowing empathy and a wry smile. He is a work-in-progress, like his project, his viewer, his maker.

This same sense of fluidity and contingency characterizes Bailin’s use of charcoal. Like William Kentridge’s drawings made into animations, Bailin’s contain a span of mark-making and erasure. The surfaces are worked and reworked, toned with warm brown washes of coffee to push them back in time, but equally charged with the insistency and raw immediacy of the present. They represent a moment within a continuum, proffered without the benefit of introductory set-up or the false gratification of closure.

In the text accompanying the present show, “Washington’s Profile,” Bailin opts, as ever, for the oblique, presenting an old, incomplete set of endnotes to an absent manuscript. In the writings as in the drawings, all we have is what is before us, flavored by what we infer, imagine or remember. To be suspended in that vast expanse of the present, Bailin so vividly reminds us, is both our predicament and our privilege.

1: Belongings • 2008 • Charcoal on Paper
2: Whittling • 2008 • Charcoal on Paper
3: Road (Job) • 1996 • Charcoal and Coffee on Paper
Ollman essay image
Belongings drawing image
Whittling drawing image
Job drawing image
shoelace drawing image
apparition drawing image
sundial drawing image
Map drawing image
Corner drawing image