William Bailey ART ’57 invites a new layer of meaning to items as commonplace as pots.
Bailey’s exhibit at the Whitney Humanities Center is as unimposing as it is beautiful. The display of Bailey’s work is unceremonious, yet completely appropriate. Sketches hang on the wall in between doors, framed simply and unaccompanied by any description beyond the sign for the exhibit. But this serves only to bring out the value of Bailey’s work — its ability to stun in spite of simplicity.
Logic and reason are ever-present in Bailey’s still lifes. He uses objects such as pots, pitchers, bowls and eggcups as his subjects and places them on a plain counter that serves as a backdrop. The juxtaposition of the rounded vessels against the flat surface gives him plenty of lines, curves and shadows to manipulate to create a series of works that varies in form, yet centers around a single feeling of calm. This serenity grows out of Bailey’s arrangement of the objects, which seems to aim at a tranquil balance between tall and short, straight and curved, light and dark.
Shading plays a significant role in differentiating Bailey’s drawings. One still life, no darker than a light grey at any point, has a cheerful tone, while another, almost identical, is made ominous by its dark backdrop and marked contrasts. Bailey also uses shading to give precedence to certain elements within a single drawing, bringing out certain shapes or the background, and illuminating hidden parallels between different elements of the work.
The peace that characterizes Bailey’s still lifes also applies to his sketches of female figures, a few of which are displayed at the exhibit. Bailey’s fine pencil marks barely emerge from the page as he creates figures that seem only half-real. His sparse characterization emphasizes the full curves and distinctive faces of his nudes, as he refuses to distract with too much color or detail.
Despite creating images that are provocative in their mundanity, Bailey is not necessarily a realist.
Bailey once described the reasoning behind this departure: “I admire painters who can work directly from nature, but for me that seems to lead to anecdotal painting. Realism is about interpreting daily life in the world around us. I’m trying to paint a world that’s not around us.”
While this view may seem inconsistent with the commonplace nature of Bailey’s subjects, it warrants reconsideration. Both Bailey’s still lifes and his representations of female figures are created entirely from memory and imagination, not from a physical scene.
According to poet Mark Strand ART ’59, who was quoted on the exhibition sign at the gallery, Bailey’s works are “realizations of an idea,” pieces meant to appear real that are actually just manifestations of his imagination.
The imaginative quality of Bailey’s work has the potential to impact the viewer’s perception. The sign introducing the exhibit explored this effect.
“The subjects may well exist, but the viewer is compelled to reflect on their dreamlike quality, their intentional abstraction,” it reads.
William Bailey was once dean of the Yale School of Art and is now a professor emeritus. His exhibit, “William Bailey Works on Paper: Temperas, Drawings, and Prints,” will be on view at the Gallery at the Whitney until Jan. 28.