I’ve skimmed through the white-walled halls of the School, Jack Shainman’s gleaming 30,000-foot exhibition space in what used to be Kinderhook’s high school, gawking as I go at a number of works by Radcliffe Bailey. His survey exhibition, “Travelogue,” provokes wonder. Incorporating found objects, photos, paint and metal, he sculpts pieces – arrangements, really – that explore multiple African-American themes, such as ancestry, migration, the Middle Passage and other elements of collective memory. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia, but has shown in Shainman’s New York galleries numerous times. They are longtime friends, it seems.
When Bailey and Shainman suddenly appear in one hall, I grab the opportunity to ask a few questions to satisfy my curiosity. You’re not supposed to do that, are you? Ask an artist or poet right out what the heck their work means? Like the sculpture in the entryway: hundreds, maybe thousands of piano keys strewn about like ocean waves, with a sparkly black ship floating at one end and the sinking body of a black man at the other. So many disassembled pianos. So many lives lost at sea and elsewhere. Throughout the exhibit, I see repeated elements: railroad tracks and boats. I run to catch up. I dive in.
So, what do you have to say for yourself?
(Bailey laughs with sweet shyness and answers quietly.) It’s about dealing with travel by land and by sea, but then spiritually traveling as well. Some of it’s layered between my father being an engineer and the Underground Railroad, to boats and travel, movement crossing the Atlantic – as well as the relationship between sea and space, and how we somewhat sit at the crossroads between the two.
How do you mean, “We sit at the crossroads”?
I always felt like I lived in my dreams, and the other world, which was real surreal, was the actual world we live in, so-called tangible reality.
(Oh, that crossroads?) When did you start doing artwork?
After art school. (He chuckles.)
Shainman: Nah, when you were in kindergarten! You’ve been an artist forever.
Bailey: I think so, yeah. It’s something my mother picked up on and pushed me towards.
Bailey wanders into a large hall where multimedia paintings and a few sculptures dwarf the viewer. I sense that the message emanating from them as a group covers a lot of historical ground and personal experience. Is that subtle violence or acceptance? Is that anger? Beauty? Is that a lighthouse lamp?
Shainman continues: With artists like Radcliffe making such incredible work, I’m really so proud of this exhibition – there are 41 pieces of his here, even a large sculpture out back. This show will be up for six months.
Is that standard?
Shainman: There’s nothing really standard. We did three shows one year, but it was too much.
And you’ve shown in New York, too?
Shainman: Oh yes! We’ve worked together many times. When did we get together?
Shainman: Are you kidding? Is that true? I’m so proud. I just love the juxtaposition of the works.
I’m struck by the size of some of these. The space is phenomenal. So, is there anything you really want readers to know about the show, your artists or the facility that hasn’t been emphasized yet?
Shainman: What I want to do is bring these shows to this area… I’m trying to do important shows with artists of our time with important themes. This show has so much relevance, especially now.
With Bailey’s “Travelogue,” the School celebrates its fourth anniversary, remaining open until October 6. Concurrently, a series of solo exhibitions fills what were once the upstairs classrooms, hallways and bathrooms of the Martin Van Buren High School: works by Nina Chanel Abney, Shimon Attie, Math Bass, Valérie Blass, Vibha Galhotra, Brad Kahlhamer, Margaret Kilgallen, Lyne Lapointe, Gordon Parks and Leslie Wayne.
Covering even more ground (and water), these artists “converge on themes of history and migration, funneled through the lens of contemporary life. Emphasis is not on the destination, but on the digressive path of the journey and the various points of discovery and loss along the way.”
The School is open on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free. The School/Jack Shainman Gallery, 25 Broad Street, Kinderhook; (518) 758-1628, www.jackshainman.com/school-2.