Ali Bailey, "It's the Real Thing," installation view at Andrew Rafacz Gallery

I profiled Ali Bailey last year on the occasion of his solo debut in Chicago at Golden Gallery, an exhibition titled “You are Young” (the piece appeared in New City; you can read it here). Bailey is definitely what I’d consider to be ‘a comer.’ (Isn’t that a terrible word to apply to artists? It has such unfortunate equine associations). His works sold well at last year’s Next Fair at Art Chicago – no small feat in an extreme down market – and he’s already busted out with his second Chicago solo show, at Andrew Rafacz: a startling new body of work that he thinks is his most complicated to date. I agree. Bailey’s sculptures have changed a lot since his first exhibition, and I wanted to talk to him in greater depth about the progression from that last body of work to this one.  Sadly for Chicago, Bailey’s next big move is a geographic one: he’ll be setting up digs in Los Angeles soon because his wife, artist and curator Kristen Van Deventer, will be attending graduate school there. I am very grateful to Ali for taking the time to provide such well-considered answers to my often clumsy and inordinately detailed questions. His show continues through May 8th at Andrew Rafacz Gallery.

CI: The most obvious shift or change that’s apparent in your new body of work at Andrew Rafacz is that it is much more abstract than the group of sculptures shown at the “You Are Young” show at Golden last year. That earlier work drew upon recognizable and sometimes even iconic imagery: a basketball and a baseball, an ice cream cone, a tree stump covered in gum and graffiti. Your latest work still gives me the feeling that there are exterior referents at play but now they seem more art historical and less pop-cultural. For example, I saw in your use of the grey felt material in the piece East Meets West / Worked Out a little Beuys joke, I loved how it’s slung over a sculpture that looks like a looming, abstracted version of a Stairmaster or some other type of exercise equipment that quickly becomes ‘useless’ and soon comes to function primarily as a clothes hanger. Can you tell me a little bit about this shift between the two bodies of work — what have you been thinking about lately that’s caused this move towards less immediately recognizable forms?

AB: You’re right about there being a distinct move toward a more abstract language, both in terms of subject and form and in a way, this shift is a direct result of problems that I’ve created for myself. For me, the last body of work operated in two different ways and that was very important. On one level it was about objecthood in a broad sense, making (and the presence of the hand), and a kind of tension resulting from a push-pull dynamic between inherent contradictions in the work and a kind of Gober-esque uncanny. The other prominent characteristic of the work was a pop-cultural critique and I suppose that this is where you could talk about the poetic content and the more accessible qualities the works had. In these ways I think the work was successful. The thing that really didn’t work and this is what I’ve been battling with recently, is being able to convey a distancing or a kind of knowing-naivety or to set up a dialogue that talks about authenticity. In my mind, it was clear that what I was presenting was not authentic in any sense nor was it really concerned with being ‘truthful’ – I was trying to examine certain narrative tropes but instead ended up giving people an easy out – they often never got further than the narrative or the overt poetic strand of the idea.

"Stump (Led Zeppelin #1)," 2009. Courtesy Golden Gallery

So, what I’ve been trying to do since then, and this is over the course of a year, is to find a way of dealing with narrative (instead of abandoning it), as well as the fact that I am so invested, for one reason or another, in objects and a sculptural language. I also wanted to address the problems I’ve had with undesirable readings of the work and dead-ends, via aesthetic, material, or narrative distraction. So essentially, a key strategy of the new work has been focused on developing a language that doesn’t close down so easily and cannot be read in such a linear way. Perversely, this has lead to pieces that sometimes point only to themselves (see Ralph Lauren), despite the fact that they might contain highly loaded signifiers that point toward a number of external references.

I’m happy that you mention Beuys with reference to East Meets West / Worked Out. If there is a latent auto-biographical strand underpinning any of my new work, it might be found [there]. Beuys’ seminal ‘Action’, I Like America and America Likes Me, was certainly one (of many) jumping off points for East Meets West / Worked Out. His action was simultaneously highly political and spiritual and in addition functioned as a scathing attack against the hegemony of a certain brand of American art, in particular East Coast (and by that I mean New York) Minimalism. By nodding subtly to Beuys, and this needs not be explicit in the reading of the work per se, I am aligning myself, via my relocation from Europe (UK) to America, with Beuys and the journey that he made, albeit in a self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek fashion. His props effectively become mine, like other objects in the show (Coke can, Ralph Lauren paint etc).

East Meets West / Worked Out, 2010.

With that in mind, East Meets West / Worked Out can be considered in two very different ways – either as an uneasy alliance of two warring factions (the ‘towel’ is ruining the ‘sculpture’) or as a mutually beneficial coming together – everything has been ‘worked out’ and we are left with a perfect equilibrium. This idea of a struggle or perhaps surrender or quiet acceptance is hopefully reinforced by the visceral relationship the viewer has with the piece – that you could quite literally ‘work something out’ in a physical, real sense. This quite overt implication of a very specific or studied use-value is an important facet of all the sculptural works in the show.

CI: Can you talk about the collage/magazine cut-out pieces in “It’s the Real Thing”?  Do the pieces relate directly to the sculptures in some fashion, and/or do they represent a new aspect of your practice? I wasn’t quite sure how they fit in.

This is the first opportunity I’ve had to really make a true body of work that can actually exist holistically, in the same field of vision – everything has been developed in tandem and without wanting to spell out specific connections, everything that’s in the show needs to be there and has an important relationship to everything else. The framed pieces should function as ‘markers’ or as a possible route into the sculpture – the Tissavel fake fur ad, which is the first thing you see/encounter in the show, really acts as an introduction or even a caveat and should talk about a kind of cyclical search for authenticity that’s rooted in something inauthentic as its starting point. A kind of motif that can be found in all of the work.

Eskimos Have Y Words for Snow, 2010. Magazine advertisement, framed.

It's the Real Thing, 2010. Cut magazine advertisment, framed.

Obviously there are other themes that need to be acknowledged, and it’s not lost on me that if you use the kind of found materials in the ways that I have used them, that there will be an inevitable and necessary questioning of consumerism, or post-modernism, as well as an art-about-art critique. So as an attempt to outline my strategy, and without wanting to sound obtuse or evasive, the work really doesn’t set out with the ultimate aim to question any one theme but rather to exist (hopefully) in a nuanced or uncertain dichotomy where a rich set of ideas can be talked about without giving in to any one idea in particular. This is something that’s really important to me and also something that I’m trying hard to find a way to talk about.

CI: I was also struck by the scale of the newer sculptures – can you talk about the shifts in scale from one body of work to another and how that relates to the way you’re thinking about abstraction right now?

I’ve become really interested in a very literal reading of the term abstraction, or specifically what it means ‘to abstract’ and how that notion can be examined or aped. So, in a way, you could think about a lot of the new work as exercises in formal reduction – presenting some ‘thing’ as another ‘thing’ by means of a simple intervention. For example, by calling a contemporary Coke can an ‘artifact’ and turning it upside down, or by asking the viewer to consider the rectangular folds and color of a piece of paper as a way of simultaneously ignoring, and drawing attention to, the highly politicized/prescient content and/or cynical strategies employed by a magazine advertisement.

A significant part of my practice is still fairly intuitive although the decision making process is, I think, highly specific and selective. Often, what I am doing is problem solving – or rather, dealing with the problems of my own output, taking something that’s come together in an intuitive way and trying to understand it or make it do something that destabilizes it enough so that it becomes capable of offering more that the sum of its parts. Really what it comes down to is a delicate balancing of information and references, both subtle and overt, in order to leave enough space for multiple readings. If I know exactly how a work is going to perform then it shuts down and can offer no surprises. That for me is when something ceases to be interesting.

Abstraction with Artifact, 2010

Abstraction with Artifact, 2010. (Detail)

Claudine Isé

Claudine Isé has worked in the field of contemporary art as a writer and curator for the past decade, and currently serves as the Editor of the Art21 Blog. Claudine regularly writes for and Chicago magazine, and has also worked as an art critic for the Los Angeles Times. Before moving to Chicago in 2008, she worked at the Wexner Center in Columbus, OH as associate curator of exhibitions, and at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles as assistant curator of contemporary art, where she curated a number of Hammer Projects. She has Ph.D. in Film, Literature and Culture from the University of Southern California.