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Ancestral Memories

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One of the overlooked aspects of visual art is its cultural memory function, its capacity to evoke or preserve what has gone before. For instance, not only do we know from their portraits what people in bygone times looked like, but artists also left us with a record of long-vanished landscapes and even species of plants and animals that no longer exist. Beyond that, evoking the broader sensibilities of the past is an act of psychic spelunking for which artists are well suited, relying as they do on nuance and tone as much as anything concrete or quantifiable.

For Atlanta artist Radcliffe Bailey, the tone is elegiac and lyrical. Incorporating old photos of African Americans into his expansive mixed-media assemblage/paintings, Bailey celebrates a heritage that, while often disadvantaged, was characterized by creativity, ingenuity and pride. The old photos convey formal dignity while his painted surfaces, jazzy, pulsating swatches of pigment bisected by fluid, meandering lines and random geometric fenestrations, provide a Coltrane-like counterpoint, as we see in Sepia Love Song.

Here a 19th-century maiden poses before a painted backdrop. Resplendent in her finery, her features are formal as she stares stiffly out from the past; all around her, the visual equivalent of saxophone and trumpet riffs commemorate all that has happened since. Others follow suit, with variations seen in Untitled, a view of three gals and a dude in the 1920s or 1930s gathered on a country road, posing with snakes looped on sticks as farmland recedes in the distance. Here the surrounding paint becomes more arcadian, with hints of tree trunks, sacred scarabs and slave ships. Dambala, the name of the vodun serpent deity, appears in big block letters.

Perhaps most inspired is the billboard-size Monk, a pastiche of lunar orbs and white sails, antiquated piano mechanisms and iconic black cats, silver machetes, voodoo flags and red cloth punctuated by swatches of pale turquoise, dripping crimson and midnight-black paint. While Bailey seemed almost on automatic pilot in some of these works, Monk reaches out and touches you with something old and something new, something crimson and something deep blue -- some special truth that Thelonius knew.

More ancestral memories appear at Morgan-West where Gnostic Devotions hold sway. Who were the Gnostics? Long story. Let's just say they were mystics who once ruled parts of Europe but were drummed out of Christendom -- and power -- at the point of a sword nearly a millennium ago. The Gnostics were cool and elegant, and their memory lives on, if subliminally, in the secret knowledge and alternative culture found all around us today.

Our Ladies of the Black Forest by Brenda Stumpf is a series of dark, sculpted figures swathed in white lace. Made of twigs, found objects and spare parts, their presence is chthonic, like so many maenads of the underworld. The Black Virgin is a mystery, but her origins are pagan, ancient, perhaps harking to the old Gnostic attempts to reconcile spirituality and sexuality, and these works convey something of that sensibility.

Michael deMeng's Fan is a framed box sculpture inspired by Vishnu dreaming up the universe. The scrap metal monolith inside the frame suggests a Hindu stupa; the old electric fan below it an industrial lotus flower. But the word "fan" also suggests the fans of rock or movie stars, those hypnotized by electronic-media spectacles, the frenzied sleepwalkers of our time. A glicee print by Thomas Mustafo suggests an X-ray of an arm in chain mail surrounded by cryptic symbols like relics of Knights Templars in cyberspace, and there is actually a lot of interesting work by emerging artists here, as well as pieces by more familiar names such as Mitch Gaudet, Perry Morgan and Jimmy "Rocketman" Descant (who must by now be the most established emerging artist of all time).

Even the labels are remarkably thorough, some containing mini-essays on esoterica of all sorts, and indeed an essay on the psychology of Gnosticism and mysticism has been included as the work of a 17th, though anonymous, artist. Gnostic Devotions may not reveal any secrets, but as a show it illuminates the ancient mysteries that are still with us -- as murmurs in collective memory if not as forthright acts of mystical transformation.

Radcliffe Bailey's mixed-media works, combining - old photos with painted surfaces as evidenced in - Sepia Love Song, strike a tone that is both - elegiac and lyrical.
  • Radcliffe Bailey's mixed-media works, combining old photos with painted surfaces as evidenced in Sepia Love Song, strike a tone that is both elegiac and lyrical.

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