March 11, 2010
David Bailin's linear charcoals are like the newspaper clip pings he says guided his thoughts, if not his images, in his exhibit "Paper Trails." They tell stories in black, white and shades of gray. His drawing ability, intellect and sometimes humorous regard of the human condition are unmatched hereabout perhaps anywhere. He's a master, and thanks to the Arkansas Studies Institute, Little Rock is getting to see a wide-ranging collection of his work for the first time since his one-man show at the Arkansas Arts Center in 2000. Bailin's earliest works in the show are 8-by-14 foot drawings (on unwaxed milk carton paper) inspired by Biblical tales. In "Bone," Noah, dressed in a sweater, slacks and a raincoat hanging from his wrists, stands numbly amid a field of skulls while two women rendered in the style of mothers from the 1950s busy themselves, one by watering a sprig. The scale suggests the monumentality of a world-wide wipeout a la flood; the dress is of a generation just before the artist's own. It is a scene both funny and terrible, a trademark of Bailin's agile and high-energy mind. The large-scale works are awesome and complex, and a trip through the gallery with the artist adds yet another dimension. "'Skin," in which Cain holds up a skin in a rocky grid filled with lungs and viscera and other not-so-easy to look at organs, has dates and other notes (including a couple of tic-tac-toe games) scribbled about, recording his progress on the work. The work was done at a time when the artist was incorrectly diagnosed with cancer, an event that sent him to anatomical textbooks to render the guts that Cain would need to reassemble Abel. In the top right corner, crows descend to feed on a nearly indiscernible figure which is actually where the work started, Bailin explains: Prometheus, who molded man from clay, suffering his perpetual punishment for bringing fire to man.
From there, it's just a hop skip and a jump for Bailin to describe some of his later, smaller work (he lost his large studio rather than the desire to work large), as Buster Keaton meets Kafka: A man deadpanning his way through a series of misadventures in the plainest of settings: A spare office. Wooden desk. Old file cabinets. Fluorescent lights. Bailin's strokes, fluid in the earlier work, are confining and straight, few curves to soften things up. An exception: "Shoe," in which a huge tree has come through a window into an office, but the man is too engrossed in his feet to notice. It's symbolic, funny and the rendering of the tree and the shadow it casts, in gorgeous strokes and smears and erasings of charcoal, is sensually appealing. Which is not to say the non-sensuous works are less fine, but the components of the images are man-made and bleak though Bailin says they are more about the way we all muddle through life unappreciative, perhaps, of our contributions, than hopelessness.
The exhibit opens March 12. Bailin will attend a Second Friday Art night reception from 5 to 8 p.m. where any errorsof interpretation herein will be corrected.