John William Bailly and Collective Histories
by Melissa Díaz
For his first solo exhibition at LnS Gallery, The Roses of Fibonacci, John Bailly asserts the past as present in new paintings that capture the intensity of early contact between Europeans and the Americas. The Transatlantic dialogue is central to Bailly’s work and these new paintings investigate the human experience in relation to history and place at this critical point. For Bailly, the paintings are not necessarily about the politics of these events, but rather explore larger universal questions about the development of culture and identity within the context of this turbulence.
Existing in the realm of the grand history paintings of the nineteenth century are the three large-scale paintings. Expansive in both scale and vision, the paintings evoke violence, chaos and the coming together of European and indigenous peoples of the Americas. The allegory of the Americas as a female figure in The Decree of Death, and the roses forming both the overlaying Fibonacci spiral in all the works, as well as symbols of fertility, sexuality and the fragility of life serve as a profound symbol of this relationship. In the current tempestuous state of politics, Bailly’s paintings pull us back to a genesis; the acuteness of a moment when two forces crashed into each other to become something new: the colonizer and the colonized; the world born from that moment of violence, trauma and fervor.
While the works are anchored in references to certain sites (i.e. the detailed maps of Venice, Venezuela and Miami in the larger paintings respectively), they are more involved in the moment of first contact. In Venice Venezuela, the city of Venice comes crashing down on a figure in plumes of white smoke. When asked where he felt his work lay conceptually, Bailly continues to stress the importance of site and place. “More than anything, I would like to be seen as a Miami painter.” It is also significant that these paintings are being shown for the first time in Miami. This dialogue between the paintings and the audience develops a “sociohistorical dimension of places” inferred by their subject matter1 and gives way for larger conversations about identity, culture and history to take hold.
Drawing on a wide range of art historical references, Bailly’s approach to painting is a process that is as meticulous and methodical as it is expressive and intuitive. His mark-making is a layering of an adroit awareness of disegno of the Renaissance masters, charged with the spontaineity of American Abstract Expressionist action painting. In Venice Venezuela, the Canaletto-like Venetian cityscape is balanced and anchored with the gestural swells of reds and greens that make up the spiraling roses. The intensity and energy of the larger works is matched by the concentrated power of a smaller suite of paintings containing heavily obscured portraits of the first European explorers to the Americas. These faces become almost unrecognizable under the black sinuous lines of Mangrove roots and the tactility of the impasto flowers, a nod to Joan Mitchell and Franz Kline.
This exhibition also includes flat files with scores of formal drawings, energetic studies, and sketches of architecture, landscapes and portraits; the likenesses of which can be found peppered throughout the paintings. Curated by Sofia Guerra, a former student of Bailly’s and artist assistant, and paired with the paintings, the drawings present an exhibition that is as much an archive of Bailly’s process as they are a retrospective of the past three years of work.
Bailly has a deep affinity for historical narratives and tropes that come from his connection to Miami and the many sites he visits during his study abroad trips to Europe with FIU’s Honors College students. Since 2010, Bailly has been re-creating his own Grand Tour to sites both known and obscure in France, Italy and Spain. Guiding his students along a rich and inspired journey through art and history, these trips have been highly instrumental in his research for the works in this exhibition. The squares that form the cohesive backdrop of the large paintings are a direct reference to the tile mosaics of Basilica San Marco in Venice. Much like the natural landscape of South Florida he surrounds himself with, his work as an artist is in symbiosis with the courses he leads and the two are inseparable.
Working exclusively in oils, and mixing all of his colors, Bailly’s palette is a collection of his observations and memories of different sites. For example, the blues of the mosaic patterns come from the skies over the Deering Estate, where the artist is currently participating in a two-year fellowship residency. Filled with references to art and artists from history, native Florida plants, and a lifelong fascination with the relationship between mathematics and natural phenomena as in the Fibonacci spiral, the exhibition as a whole demonstrates Bailly’s capacity to weave together personal and collective histories about cultural and locational identities.
1 Miwon Kwon, “One Place after Another: Notes on Site Specificity,” October 80 (Spring, 1997): 85-110. In this passage Kwon is describing the significance of the exhibition “Places with a Past” curated by Mary Jane Jacob in Charleston, SC in 1992. (see page 105).
Melissa Díaz is the Cultural Arts Curator for the Deering Estate. She received her Master’s Degree in Art History from the University of South Florida where her area of concentration was the early works of Michelangelo Pistoletto and his involvement with Arte Povera. She has held positions in several museums and galleries throughout South Florida including the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami, David Castillo Gallery, and Miami Art Museum (now Pérez Art Museum Miami). Additionally, she participated in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection internship program in Venice, Italy, where she was the first recipient of the Liesbeth Bollen Internship Fund. As an independent curator, Melissa has organized several contemporary art exhibitions in South Florida. She has taught courses in art history and museum studies for Miami Dade College, Florida International University, and New World School of the Arts.