From a distance, it might look like a pile of wooden rubble lying in the middle of the floor at the Gibbes Museum of Art. But then, as you get closer, you realize that there's a conscious shape to the wreckage; the broken timbers seem to rise like a wave at one end, and there's a small ship entangled in the wood at the lowest ebb. And then as you get even closer to the sculpture, which is called Storm At Sea and was created by a multi-disciplined Atlanta artist named Radcliffe Bailey, you realized that these jagged wooden shards are piano keys, ripped from their former instruments and placed among the debris.
This is the centerpiece of Bailey's new exhibit at the Gibbes, called Pensive, and it forms the spine of the exhibit. Tangled in the broken wood is a deeply resonant message about 400 years of slavery in America, the toll it took on African-American families, and the lives it destroyed.
"It's certainly the centerpiece of the exhibit," says Pam Wall, the curator of exhibitions at the Gibbes. "In part because of its physical presence, and the fact that it's a site-specific installation."
The piano keys are a recurring theme in Bailey's work, and Wall says that they're meant to represent a sense of displacement.
"That's something that carries through his work," she says. "A number of his pieces include piano keys, and I think that while the sculpture simulates this idea of the ocean and these turbulent waves, the keys themselves have a history. They were pulled from a piano. They are things that were displaced and taken out of their original form, and in that form, they carried music. So there's this cultural aspect, and a history that is a part of those keys that ties into his message of exploring the transatlantic slave trade and the people who were displaced and torn from their homes and sent on this horrible journey across the Atlantic."
The Gibbes has been working with Bailey for almost 20 years, starting when they acquired one of his large prints in 2000. In 2010, he was awarded the 1858 Prize For Contemporary Southern Art by the Gibbes. The prize awards $10,000 to an artist whose work contributes to a new understanding of art in the South.
And Bailey's work most definitely has a Southern perspective, even if it often touches on parts of the South's history we might not be as comfortable with.
The Pensive exhibit includes everything from a cast bronze statue of civil rights activist and author W.E.B. Du Bois as Rodin's "The Thinker" to The Windward Coast, a disturbing piece in which a man's head, covered in black sequins, bobs in a sea of wooden debris. The themes of history even come up in the materials Bailey chooses; he often works with worn canvases or weather-beaten tarps or vintage photographs to create a sense of the harshness of the past.
"We're an American art museum with a focus on the Southern region of the country," Wall says, "and Radcliffe's work so powerfully ties into the history of the South. He draws on that history that we've struggled with for so long, but he has such a unique voice. And there's this beautiful poetry to his work. I think it's so powerful when you view it in person, that's why we're so excited to have the opportunity to show a large exhibition of what he's created."
Bailey himself has spoken in the past about how personal and spiritual the experience of creating his art is for him, and the Pensive exhibit will actually offer people a chance to hear about his process. Bailey will be hosting an artist-led tour of the exhibit before it opens on Friday, where he will talk about the creation of the various pieces. Wall says that with an artist whose work often relies heavily on symbolism and metaphor, the chance to hear him lay out his ideas is invaluable.
"He talks about how the creation of these works is a way of grappling with these questions and issues," she says, "and it's this act of finding this beauty in history and working through the issues as he creates the work. So this tour is a really great opportunity to hear what he was thinking about and what was inspiring him when he created these works. Because some of it is so subtle, and you might have a lot of questions when you look at it. To be able to be in the space and experience the artwork with the artist is always meaningful, particularly with Radcliffe. There's such depth to his work that hearing him talk about it is a wonderful experience."