Review: Beezy Bailey’ Exhibition, “Dancing in the Woods”

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Everard Read is the site of reverie, fantasy and myth as chimeras leap and spin amidst backdrops blooming with colour. Dancing in the Woods is Beezy Bailey’s first solo exhibition in Cape Town in six years and it is a dauntless display of anthropomorphic terrains, baffling sprites and gamboling brush-strokes.

The Risen Tree Dances with the Butterflies, Tree Escape and Township Jazz present trees flailing with human limbs – or are these people?  – who flaunt knotted knees, as roots, shoot from their feet. Birdland grants men the wings of birds, birds sprout human legs and grass takes flight upon feathers, drenched in oil. The intrepid paint-work and impressionistic background of this image capture the mood of many other pieces in the exhibition such as Dragonfly Lady and Jitterbug which tease and tear at the boundaries between humans, animals and plant-life.

The abstract nature of this exhibition belies the fact that it is grounded in tangible socioeconomic realities. The majority of the work draws life-breath from Bailey’s 5, 000 Tree Landscape Project which the artist initiated with the NGO Greenpop. Ten percent of proceeds from Dancing in the Woods will go towards this scheme, which seeks to spiritually uplift the Cape Flats through the planting of 5,000 trees.

Bailey employs silk-screened images and photographs of the Cape Flats but his flourishing use of paint, coupled with the persistence of phantasmal creatures, utterly remodels pre-existing understandings of Township life. The way in which the physicality of the Cape landscape is subjected to the vicissitudes of the artistic process, embodies Greenpop’s drive to imaginatively enrich an area that is crippled by devastating social truths.

The ingenious way in which Bailey responds to destitution and poverty, is surely in keeping with his own contention that, “I am not an illustrator; I release the images that appear before me. Like Picasso, I say that it is not for me to explain the contents of my work; this is for the viewer to do.”

The comparison with Picasso is ostentatious but Bailey’s manipulation of reality is evocative of Picasso’s own statement, “Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot, others transform a yellow spot into the sun.” In Bailey’s case, it is hard to say whether he transmutes prosaic truth into something uncanny or if he begins with the unseemly figures of his dreams and adapts them to commonplace actuality.

The work on show in Portswood Road is also strongly influenced by Bailey’s recent travels to New York where he will be exhibiting in March with musician Dave Matthews, and Alexander Heinrici, who has famously printed for Andy Warhol.  

Perhaps it is the test of artistic talent to revivify clichéd material but Bailey’s decision to incorporate scenes from 9/11 smacks of commercialism and may have been prompted by the promise of exhibiting at New York’s eminent Robert Miller Gallery.

In Flat Earth Free Fall, the figures who tumble from burning buildings borrow something from Greek black-figure painting and a little from Khoisan rock-art, hence blurring the divide between America and historic cultures. In its own turn, Midnight on the Town superimposes ancient revelers upon the demolition of the modern urban environment, implying the imperviousness of the ages to 21st century tragedy. While these are thought-provoking takes on familiar material, these scenes are too haggard to benefit from Botox. All in all, the images of New York have the unlucky effect of stressing the kitsch elements of Bailey’s art such his garish use of colour and penchant for butterflies.

Dancing in the Woods oscillates between the trite and the truly inspiring. Bailey’s passionate dreamscapes of Township existence are both moving and beautiful. Yet the renderings of a dated American turmoil blow up in his face. I was unable to shake the feeling that this African artist staggers and stoops under the weight of international pressure.  

 Alice Meyer

Dancing in the Woods runs from 13th – 28th February at Everard Read Gallery. See full details: www.whatsonincapetown.com/post/art-exhibition-beezy-bailey-dancing-in-the-woods/

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