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William Bailey


by Donald Kuspit
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William Bailey tells us that he doesn’t represent objects, scenes, figures he’s observed, but rather imagines them, suggesting that the still-life-paintings for which he is famous are fantasies. More precisely, abstract fantasies, for their forms and colors seem more important to him than their emotional and social meaning. Thus, what counts in Rose Alba (2012) is not the materiality of the objects on matter-of-fact display -- a pitcher, a bowl, a bottle, some cups -- but rather the contrasting shapes built into them and between them. It is the difference between the curve of the pitcher’s thin handle and the curve of its opening that “matters,” and between them and the wide-mouthed opening of the bulky bowl, and between both the thin neck and small opening of the bottle, as well as the three small cups, all differently shaped. The pitcher is white, the bowl is pink, the bottle is brown and the cups are multi-colored. All the objects are set in a corner composed of three thin planes, each a different shade of brown.

But the angle the planes form is hidden behind the bowl, partially obscuring, even collapsing the space, and the planes flatten around it, and seem to de-materialize in response to the emptiness. The rounded objects seem to hover between the vertical wall planes and the horizontal ground plane, however nominally resting on the latter. But they’re not exactly rounded; they have an oddly flat, distilled look. It’s all staged, artificial, a sort of little theater of the perceptually absurd: the objects are facades for pure form, nuanced color, complicated space and subtle shadow and light. It is the formal difference between the objects -- the difference between their sizes, shapes, colors and tonalities -- that matter for Bailey, not their ingratiating familiarity. They are not real, but esthetic hallucinations -- abstractly constructed hallucinations. Bailey’s “family” of objects -- there’s the three big adults (the differently shaped, colored and illuminated pitcher, bowl and bottle), and there’s the three little children (the more look-alike cups) -- but the point is that they’re all performing an abstract ballet on a stage. They’re carefully scripted, rather than spontaneously given. This is not Morandi, whose objects have an existential presence and resonance, but objects distilled to their timeless essence, suggesting that they are sort of hallucinatory things in themselves -- Platonically pure ideas that Bailey has hallucinated, projections of his imaginative mind’s eye, and as such unreal, or rather irreal, for they hover between reality and unreality.

Empty Stage I and II (both 2012) make the theatricality of Bailey’s abstractions clear. The two female figures in various relational positions are quintessentialized hallucinations. There’s a subliminal eroticism to their friendly relations, an undertone of sexuality that belies the pastoral innocence of the scene. Does the splendid green on which they recline suggest “splendor in the grass?” A similar muted eroticism haunts Night Nicomo Valley (2011). There’s a sense of sterile passion in all of Bailey’s works, suggesting that they involve the return of repressed memories, memories that have left their mark on him and now exist only in hallucinatory form, phantom bodies and abstract scenes the esthetic dregs of loss.

William Bailey, Mar. 29-May 12, 2012, at Betty Cuningham Gallery, 541 West 25th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.

DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor emeritus of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.