Prophets, Parables, Paradoxes Catalog

In Search of a Hero

Ruth Pasquine

Criswell catalog essay
Arkansas Art Scene blog image
  1. Footprints drawing
  2. Salt [Lot's Wife]
  3. Bone [Noah]
  4. Job
  5. Pyramid
  6. Mountain
  7. Sandcastle
  8. Salt [Lot's Wife]
  9. Raod [Job]
The hero is everyman looking for a solution, a way, a path. In Footprints, 1999,1 David Bailin supplies us with the hero and the path. The path, however, consists of footprints that are directionless and incongruent, providing no easy solutions. This is a psychological moment of decision, choice, and crisis that grants the opportunity to act heroically. The situation and inner thoughts of the main character are symbolized in the landscape elements–the overcast sky, harbor in the background at the left, and the endless sandy beach that has been much trod, but which is now empty. The composition, with hero standing alone, but surrounded by signs of civilization–being in the world but not of it–begs essential questions of existence, freedom, and direction. The use of the landscape as a metaphor for psychological states of mind is a theme that runs throughout Bailin's works.

Footprints, 1999, is the first of the Prophet Series, which is composed of nine works, each roughly six feet square, begun expressly for this exhibition. These are a subset of his Midrash Series of which four, Salt [Lot's Wife], 1994,2 Bone [Noah], 1994,3 Road [Job], 1995,4 and Pyramid [Moses And Aaron], 1999,5 are also included. All works are executed in charcoal on paper, materials with which Bailin has been working exclusively since 1988. The Midrash Series differs from the Prophet Series by size and complexity. The former are much larger and more ambitious, the artist spending as long as six months on each work. The Midrash works are further distinguished by their titles, all of which refer to specific biblical passages. The figures in all of the works, however, are dressed in contemporary clothing, suggesting that a primary theme is how biblical figures would act, look, or be received, in today's world or, conversely, how people today would act in the face of challenges such as those presented in the Bible.

The prominence of the landscape in all of the compositions suggests that man's relationship to nature is another fundamental theme. In
Mountain, 1999,6 the hero is shown crouching over a small pile of stones, in the process of building his mountain. Building with the resources of nature may be a metaphor for the building of a life. The number of stones the builder has at his disposal seems paltry, however, for the scope of the project. Perhaps he is almost finished. One is tempted to think of the myth of Sisyphus, which tells of a man condemned forever to roll uphill a stone that always rolls down again. This does not, however, seem to be the theme here. Since most of the Prophet Series works lack biblical texts for guidance, the meaning is more elusive and remains, to a larger extent, up to the viewer.

Sandcastle, 1999,7 the hero, like in Footprints, 1999, stands alone on a beach. Here, however, he stands in the middle of a slowly eroding sandcastle. The hero's dress, inappropriate for the pleasures of an afternoon at the beach, points to the essentially psychological situation facing the hero. Even though the water looks cairn, the tide will come in eventually and destroy the castle and possibly even the man if he does not move. The face is more clearly defined in this work and has the sensitive look of a poet. What is at risk here? Is it the dream, represented by the sandcastle? Or is it the life itself, represented by the man sinking in the sand, because he is unwilling to let go of a dream?

Salt [Lot's Wife]
, 1994,8 the first of the Midrash Series, represents a familiar story. Again, the details are incongruous. The incongruities, however, point to the meaning and are represented, as in many of Bailin’s works, by clothing. The dress seems to date from the 1940s and is inappropriate for a walk in mountainous terrain. Viewing her from the back gives her an aura of anonymity, indicating that she could rep­resent "everyman." Again, her psychological state is known mainly through the landscape. The boulders that fly over the mountain from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah could be mistaken for clouds–another play on natural forces–but actually signal her imminent change into a pillar of salt. The only other suggestion of her impending change of state is her purse, which is disengaged from her hand. The visually unstated metaphor of a pillar of salt is another reference to the potency of natural forces. Her desire to look the destruction of God in the face–to take visual pleasure in the undoing of others–is ultimately her own undoing as well. The message is difficult to understand because in contemporary society we are not used to immediate punishment for transgressions, although we always wonder about it if we believe at all in an ultimate Creator.

Road [Job],
1995,9 is a more complex subject. The main figure, Job, is shirtless and presented from the back; the three figures in the distance are distinguished by clothing and direction. Job is a story about a man's faith tested by God. Job is stricken with disease and loses his wealth and friends. In the end, God rewards Job for remaining true. For Bailin, Job's back–in the form of a mountain stretching from the bottom to the top of the eight-foot-high drawing–contains the essential meaning of the work. The metaphor is continued in the disparity between the central vertical axis of the composition and the abnormal curvature of Job's spine, which indicates his disease–scoliosis.

For Bailin, Job is essentially about time. What hap­pened to Job could happen to anyone. What befell Job just occurs to the individual over the course of a long life. The curves, the ribs, and the pocks of Job's back, become markers and signs along the path trod during the span of a life. Since they also represent the larger geological cycles of the earth marked out as crags on a mountain, this composition pro­vides the clearest statement of Bailin's concept of man as a microcosm of the larger natural forces at work in the universe. The three men in the background, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, who, in the biblical story, taunt and question Job during his misfortune, are in the end punished by God. They symbolize the disbelievers who challenge the individual who remains loyal to God.

Bailin has not always treated biblical themes, and indeed they have preoccupied him for only the last five years. His earlier works, however, were marked by a similar placement of the figure in the landscape with an emphasis on complex psychological situations and an elusive narrative undercurrent. His first experiments with biblical themes–his Holocaust/Kabbalah Series executed between 1990 and 1991–superimposed symbols from the Kabbalah over his render­ings of photographs of actual events. Bailin's current concentration on biblical themes gives his essentially narrative aims more focus and makes his meaning more explicit by referring to stories that we are all familiar with. His upbringing, strongly marked by religious instruction, and his wide reading in matters spiritual, give added resonance to his themes.

Bailin's drawings, however, remain complex and not easily deciphered. The incongruities are intentional and are magnified by his working methods. He is constantly on the lookout for images, clipping from newspapers and magazines that he reads prodigiously. He keeps the clippings in a large box and goes through them periodically, looking for inspiration. The images he selects are ones he reacts too strongly for some psychological reason. His interest in the psychological reactions that imagery induces in himself is fundamental to the ultimate aim of his drawings–to induce potent reactions in his viewers. Bailin ups the psychological stake of his compositions by using multiple sources and removing the images from their original context, a process that retains many of the meanings of the original sources and reinforces the element of time, change, and displacement that are major themes of his work. In the end, his works are contemporary: the new context he provides for these psychologically charged fragments, juxtaposed one against the other, reflects one of the major problems of modern life–the anxieties that arise from the stream of highly–charged emotional situations that arise daily, the desire for the simple life, and the complexity of the questions that arise when one is finally alone.

The tension and restlessness set up by multiple sources and meanings is further charged by Bailin's technique and use of materials. The final form of each composition, executed with charcoal on paper, is arrived at by an intense process of drawing and erasing in a search to express the ever–shifting relationships between figure and landscape. Drawing and erasing, in fact, are the essential signs of the dynamism in Bailin's compositions. In many cases the slashing repetition of erasures is even more aggressive than the lines themselves. This is the abstract element of the drawings, the constant dis­placement between positive and negative, spiritual and material, centripetal and centrifugal, that is time itself.

His reduction of terms to black and white further reinforces the essential duality of Bailin's themes. The character of the strokes, whether positive or negative, is highly personal since the contact between hand and charcoal or eraser on paper is closer and more immediate than that between hand, brush, paint, and canvas. Also, they leave an indelible impression on the paper. Charcoal is likewise an unforgiving and dangerous medium since a drawing can easily become overworked. Ultimately, however, the ordering and clarity of the strokes–creating, defining, and endowing each form with meaning–bring the final unity to the multiplicity of motivations.