- '505': Looking at Bailin's "Erasings" series, including this one based on a photo of his father, grandfather and the artist, is to experience the mind's grasping at recall.
Study David Bailin's most recent large-scale charcoals, and their ghostlike images will slowly resolve into recognizable things: a person, a building, a car, a curtain. Candles, for Passover. Yet, like the mind's struggle to fill in a memory, the shapes have a fleeting quality. You can't fully grab onto them.
And so in visiting "The Erasings," the Little Rock artist's exhibition at Boswell Mourot Fine Art, you partially experience Bailin's father's affliction: Alzheimer's Disease. Bailin has investigated his father's loss of memory with shuffled, double-exposed drawings of family obscured by erasures and over-painting and scribbles.
Bailin's deft drawings on huge pieces of milk-carton paper are some of the most cerebral, and most beautiful, artworks being created in Arkansas. He's drawn inspiration from the Bible, the Holocaust, even the banal, and he's addressed alienation, purposelessness and other unhappy conditions, with his seductive charcoal line.
In recent years, Bailin's increasing use of pentimenti — under-drawing that survives through layers of paint or incomplete erasure — has revealed the steps taken toward the finished work (though Bailin says his work is never really finished. He once pulled a piece of charcoal from his pocket during an interview with this writer to make a mark on his winning drawing in the Arkansas Arts Center's Delta Exhibition — as it hung on the wall in the gallery). Now, however, the pentimenti have overtaken the drawing process; it is in the erasing that Bailin tells his story.
In an interview a couple of years ago, Bailin said he was distressed that he was erasing more than he was drawing. He feared he was working backward into nothingness. But as his father's illness worsened, Bailin connected his manner of drawing to an actualization of what was happening in his father's life.
As Bailin's father's memory began to fail, Bailin spent time with his father poring over family photographs. Then Bailin began to work from the photographs and erase the drawings, "to release myself from" them, he said, creating — an ironic word here — a platform to work from again. In the process, he said, "I became my father."
Bailin isn't trying to depict the world through his father's eyes, but rather experience how the stories of family and family events — the trip to the lake, the Passover meal, a grandparent's house — are stoked and lost again. As they looked at the pictures, "One story would release another." Bailin explains in the statement accompanying the show, "The back and forth process of drawing in and erasing out, having an idea or image revealing itself one minute only to fall back into obscurity the next, mimics what I see happening to my father in his heroic effort to recognize in the moment his own personal narrative and memories."
On May 11, just as Bailin was preparing for the opening of the exhibition at the Heights neighborhood gallery, Marvin Bailin died. "What had begun as a collaboration with my father has now become a memorial to him," he told friends on Facebook.
To this writer, Bailin wrote of his shock at his father's death. "I don't know what will become of the series now. I wasn't finished exploring the idea, but it was so close to my father's experience that it seems it will lose something if I continue. I wasn't ready for the drawing to disappear. How ironic. Are we ever prepared?"
The answer is, of course, no.
Now, Bailin wrote, the "inevitable ending of this series is a completely erased drawing. Nothing left."
But we still have the series at Boswell Mourot, which includes the 81-by-83-inch "505," the title a reference to the address where his father grew up. It started with a photograph of the men of the family, including Bailin as a boy, that Bailin drew and erased. Atop the erasure are hatch marks and arcs and a sketch of the floorplan of the house as Bailin remembers it, scratched out in places and marked "wrong."
In "Passover," one can make out a man in a suit and tie with family seated around a table, Passover candles lit. There's a house, an open window, the wheels of a car, red marks making a horizontal path across the picture plane, a slash of color here and there. As in "505," the picture plane is a muddle, with no sharp focus in any one part; the work shares that quality with abstraction, becoming on one level a combination of shape, line and color devoid of content.
In "Lake," the barest image of a man and boy underlie dark charcoal marks that read as shoreline, though that might not be the artist's intention. The marks and strokes and patterns that dance across the surface of "Lake" and the other drawings in "The Erasings" hold the faded images to the paper, like a net.
"Red Tie" is the earliest work in the show — dated 2015 — and it is a segue from Bailin's office everyman theme to his erasing series: A man lies on a desk in a room with tall windows, but in the center of the drawing, a figure in a red tie — the red the only color in the photo — can be made out. Bailin also pointed out a barely visible foot, that of a running girl, a nod to the running girl in Rembrandt's "The Night Watch," Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon on a Grand Jette," and de Chirico's "The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street." Bailin likes to say that while other artists shed their influences, he likes to invite them in, and by the time he's finished "it's a party"; one of the celebrants, no doubt, is his good friend Sammy Peters, an abstract artist who uses red-striped cloth in many of his works, like the red marks running atop "Passover."
Van Gogh comes to the party in "Cup." Bailin's mother drank coffee every morning; in the photograph that is the basis for the drawing, she is knitting while Bailin and his sister play. "As I was drawing this, I remembered the cup in the Arts Center's Van Gogh drawing called 'Man with Spade,' " a cup that Van Gogh rendered with a more delicate line than the man. Bailin said his own fascination with that cup was a reflection of how his father would "come to obsess on an object or an image."
The face of Bailin's mother, who died in the mid-1990s, is the most defined part of the drawing "Cup." Asked about that, the artist said perhaps he could not bring himself to erase her image. He fixed her image before erasing the rest.
Faded figures crowd the drawing "World's Fair," the only unlayered part a sketch of man on a horse, a reference to a needlepoint pillow Bailin's mother stitched. It could be read as a horse on a merry-go-round, and that's OK with Bailin. That is the nature of perception, and perception is altered with memory. In the end, as Bailin writes in his artist's statement, "Only ghosts are left."
The show closes Saturday, May 27, at the gallery, 5815 Kavanaugh Blvd.