Alix Bailey at The Painting Center
Daughter of the late artist William H Bailey, a professor of painting at Yale University for many years, Alix Bailey continues in her figurative tradition of tightly composed still lifes and equally well-formulated studies of people. There is a difference, though; Alix Bailey is given to less sharply schematic, posed individual portraits and groups of people, which she renders in a lyric fashion, eschewing excessive rigidity. The formal poses of the young people Bailey puts forth in her art claim a different point in time than the often abstract artwork we come across today. There is a dignity and measure and restraint to these paintings that serve as a healthy corrective to the dependence we have on expressionistic abstraction. The trouble is that this sort of work is too easily rejected as conservative art, when in a highly eclectic painting atmosphere, many different styles can coexist with equal meaningfulness. Bailey maintains a small studio in her confined apartment in the West Village, where she works out her compositions, notable for their traditional atmosphere but also their muted but contemporary feeling.
The big paintings on view address interiors: in Young Group (2020), three young people sit on a couch, accompanied by a young man stretched out before them on the floor. In a way it is a portrait of a younger generation; the persons depicted all seem to be in their early thirties: a young woman with short red hair, wearing a black singlet; a young man with a moustache wearing a light-colored shirt and pants; and another woman in a black dress revealing the higher part of her chest, her red hair piled up in a tall bun. On the floor, a young man in a striped shirt rests with bent knees. This is not a generation given to formal attributes, although the three people described on the white couch are somber. Yet they maintain their dignity. In a way the painting is an excuse for Bailey to work out her formal relationships and treatment of the character of the young people she is painting. In back of the couch there is a fireplace with several vases and, from what we can tell, the lower part of a figurative sculpture; again, these forms give the artist a chance to treat what she sees as a sequence of technical problems to be handled as poetically as possible. Bailey’s formalism, while considerable, only goes so far--her sense of the lyric keeps the painting from becoming a mere technical exercise.
Another portrait, Alannah and Jared Diptych (2018), includes two of the four people in the painting described above. The young woman with tousled red hair is a painter and is wearing a jumpsuit covered with paint, while on the right the young man in the moustache has on a shite shirt, gray pants, and black shoes. A cat rests on his right thigh, while behind a number of plants and, on the right, a window with a bit of an outdoor view contrasts with the set attributes delivered by the painting. The is not British portrait painting of the 1700s, but, as happens in the other painting, there is a reserve and a distance to the spirit of the two people that gives the work an air of resolve and dignity. Bailey is exchanging metaphysics for an untrammeled view of the real, and the marvelous thing about her paintings is that metaphysics does in fact assert itself despite the traditional nature of her figuration. One has to think long and hard about painting’s ability to imitate reality, as opposed to its free-form flights of fancy, so that realism’s great ability to look like something real makes sense. More introspective aspects of Bailey’s painting, such as the notion of character innate to the young adults she is rendering, become as much an aspect of the artist’s sensibility as that of her subjects.
A study of flowers, Ranunculi (2018) couldn’t be more conventional: a group of red flowers rise and fall out of a glass cup. The table the flowers sit on is covered with a blue-and-white striped tablecloth; the wall behind the table is a dull gray, as if to offset the muted colors of the flowers and the cloth. It is a beautifully conceived, articulated, and painted traditional work of art. The big question that comes into play with work like this is, At what point does the long history of the genre get in the way of a useful contemporary reading of the realist category of art? In the case of Bailey’s Ranunculi, if becomes clear that the tradition itself is in the hands of someone skilled enough to transform it into its own current world. This is hard to do, but Bailey has the technical skill to take a traditional sub-genre of painting and make it more than a little new. She does this by de-emphasizing the colors in favor of an overall muted tonality that communicates a contemporary interest in understatement, as opposed to the vibrant push of lively color we might find in an earlier work of art. It turns out, then, that Bailey’s bridge to figuration is not historically minded but very aware of how we might transform a more traditional art into something alive, compelling for this moment in time.
Jonathan Goodman, February 12, 2021