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In The Art Of Radcliffe Bailey, Memory Takes Form

At the Davis Musuem of Art at Wellesley College, there’s an extraordinary sculptural installation that fills up one huge exhibit room. Spread out across the floor are piles of wooden piano keys, and a small ocean of wooden sticks that appear to undulate like waves on a wind-swept pond. In the very middle, a shiny black head of a man pokes through — the rest of his body apparently invisible — as if he’s about to be swallowed up and lost forever beneath the waves of wood.

The piece is called Windward Coast, and it evokes the harrowing trauma and isolation of the slave trade. To Artist Radcliffe Bailey, though, it’s about even more than that.

“It was about those who were lost at sea,” he says. “It was about even going fishing with my father and going out on the ocean and feeling so small. It’s also about the one thing that I felt was the early form of DNA, which was music.”

Windward Coast is the centerpiece of Radcliffe Bailey’s show, “Memory as Medicine.” It opens Wednesday at the Davis and will be on display through May 6.

It’s hard to sum up Bailey’s art — but jazz comes to mind. He improvises with memory, history, and stories. He does floor and wall sculptures, paintings, and works with all kinds of found objects — from photographs and hats to vintage baseball bats and those piano keys (which he harvested from some 400 pianos that were being scrapped at a piano shop near his home in Atlanta).

Some of Bailey’s mixed-media pieces are built inside of deep frames, like cabinets. A family photograph in the middle, and then with paint and sculpture, he tells the stories of his past; of the south; or of a piece of African history. Bailey says these pieces help explain the name of his show: “Memory as Medicine.”

Bailey dreamed of becoming a baseball player, and in fact played some semi-pro ball. In art school, he studied sculpture, but describes himself now as a “sculptor who paints.” And there’s a powerful example of that — a piece based on a picture of a mosque in Mali that uses paint, steel and real red clay from Georgia. And of course, it tells a story.

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