Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Natura Morte

I. I first encountered the art of William Bailey around 15 years ago when I chanced upon Mark Strand's Dark Harbor, a book of poems which took its title - and some of its stylistic obsessions - from the Bailey painting on the cover, Dark Harbor III. A great many of Bailey's enigmatic paintings are essentially renderings or arrangements of the same or very similar vessels: vases, pitchers, bowls, pots and pans. Taken as a group and studied in the context of one another, the paintings create a kind of alternative universe, a narrowly delimited but internally consistent world of color and light and shadow. The constraints in subject matter, palette, and technique have the effect of making even very subtle variations seem fraught with significance. In the same way that humans moving from group to group are often inclined to "prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet," the various objects in Bailey's paintings seem to take on personalities that vary according to the company in which they are placed.

The forty-five numbered poems in Strands book are configured and deployed with similar constraints. Each is sequnce of triplet stanzas, ranging in length from two to eight. Not only are the structural elements similar, but there are recurring words and phrases and images that appear and reappear later, different for being seen in different company, in different light:

"...the wind screams at the moon's blank face..." (II)
"The dogs howl at the moon, and the moon flees..." (V)
"If dawn breaks the heart, the moon is a horror..." (VIII)
"These are bad times. Idiots have stolen the moonlight." (XXIX)
"We stand under the hollow moon and hear/No praising harp strings..." (XXXIV)

Strand encourages us by his repetitions to listen for echoes and overtones, to consider the implications of the re-placement of images. We are expected to notice, and to ask questions about, the logic of the juxtapositions. Bailey's pictures encourage us to do the same. In the picture below, for example, the collection of six objects - salt cellar, candle holder, cup, bowl, container, and funnel - keep my eye moving and my mind asking questions. The family resemblances make the urge to anthropomorphize irresistible. Is the candle holder proud of his height? The bowl seems to be the center of gravity here, the largest and most substantial piece, around which the others gather. Is it an emblem of smugness? Of stabililty? of substance? The rough, earth-colored container hides in the back, close-mouthed, keeping its own counsel. The cup seems dainty and perhaps overdressed. A flirt. The funnel keeps his distance, but is connected by placement and color to his cousins. The salt cellar, on the other hand, stands apart. By choice? Or is he, with his sleek surface and his metal hat and his funny smell, just a little too weird for the rest of them?

II. This winter I was spending a lot of time leafing though art magazines and came to recognize and respond, at some reptilian level in my brain, to Georgio Morandi's similarly obsessive paintings of vessels. Morandi is less literal than Bailey, but no less focused.

His arrangements of elemental shapes pulse between the two dimensions of the planar surface and the implied three-dimensionality of the objects depicted. The slightly abstracted, irregular, out-of-focus quality of many of his paintings encourages me to look less hard at the individuals and more at the group, the way the shapes - rectangles, ovals, rods, and cones - and speak to one another. And again, the constraints of the palette push subtleties forward: that blue, that red, would both be lost in a brighter, louder world. His pictures are composed, understated, calming.

III. All of which is by way of providing a context for the current direction of my own work, such as it is. These two artists got me thinking about the logic of still life, and about the ways in which the narrowing of one's line of vision offers the chance for unanticipated, interesting significances to emerge. I find myself in the middle of a series of pencil-and-ink drawings that obviously owe more than a little to their antecedents, but which are also opening up new territory for me. Here's the one I did last night.

I like these guys. They're each a little different, but they've got a lot in common. They're a lot like us.

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