On a recent Thursday night, a black employee of Atlanta's High Museum of Art
summed up the magnitude of the new exhibition by artist Radcliffe Bailey.
"He's on the second floor," the man said, smiling and nodding. "That's where they put da Vinci, Michelangelo, Monet, Dali."
In the city where he has lived, studied and worked nearly his entire life, Bailey has arrived.
His show, "Radcliffe Bailey: Memory as Medicine," is the first headline exhibition by an Atlanta-based artist in The High's main gallery, and throngs of his fellow citizens are already celebrating the native son who visited The High as a little boy and dreamed of becoming a great artist. The exhibition, which opens Sunday and runs through Sept. 11, highlights the black artist's experimentation with diverse media, showcasing sculptures, paintings, installations, works-on-paper, glass works and modified found objects.
It includes more than 25 works, including new art created for the exhibit and some works never before on public display.
"Whenever you're sick, you go to the medicine cabinet," Bailey explained. "For me, I go to memory. The idea of memory heals me and takes me to another place."
The show is presented in three main themes: "Water," ''Blues" and "Blood."
The "Water" group features references to the Atlantic Ocean as a site of historical trauma during the slave trade and represents an artistic and spiritual journey. "Blues" highlights works illustrating the importance of music as a transcendent art form and features the musical influences in Bailey's life, including the jazz artist Sun Ra. "Blood" focuses on the ideas of ancestry, race, memory, struggle and sacrifice.
Bailey, who was born in 1968 and graduated from the Atlanta College of Art in 1991, said he deliberately avoided making the exhibition a retrospective.
"I don't want to put the nails in the coffin," he said. "This is not my last show. I still have a lot in me and a lot of places that I want to explore in terms of my work."
Though he often changes his materials from steel and glass, to piano keys, sugar cane, tobacco, sheet music, indigo and even rum the subject matter is the same and reveals the significant influence of his family.
There was the grandmother who gave him an album of black-and-white family photographs when he was an art student, which became the foundation of much of his work. He says his mother, Brenda, "saw something in me" and provided a "school outside of school" where he learned not only about art, but family, story, memory, community, collective experience, migration and legacy. And there is his father, Radcliffe Bailey Sr., a railroad engineer to whom Bailey pays tribute with images of train tracks and themes of journey.
"My focus has always been my parents and honoring them in such a way while they're still here," Bailey said. "Thinking about my first experiences at the museum was as a little kid. ... I have a photograph of me and my mom and my aunt in front of the museum. Being here and going to art school here ... In many ways, I feel home."
His mother also serves as the inspiration for a section of the show. In 2006, Bailey had his mother's DNA traced back to the African nations of Sierra Leone and Ghana. Among the pieces that are a tribute to that heritage are an interpretation of a DNA strand and the artist's take on a Mende tribal mask including a miniature drawing done in ink and coffee on a piece of sheet music and framed within a 19th-century tintype case. It formerly housed a family photograph that he made for his mother, who gifted the work to the show.
Among those in the crowd this week to hear Bailey deliver a lecture about his work were his parents, his wife, his children, his friends and a crowd diverse in age, gender and ethnicity a testament to the appeal of his work.
"One of the things I believe in is making things so personal that they become universal," Bailey said. "I truly believe that my history is your history. It's beyond black and white. It's all different types of people."
"Memory as Medicine" is scheduled to travel to the Davis Museum at Wellesley College from February to May and the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio from June to September 2012.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.