Deshabille — a word I have never before used in a review — came to mind while I was looking at Jared’s mismatched socks (one light pink, the other pale blue) in Alix Bailey’s painting “Alannah and Jared Diptych” (oil on linen, 60 by 106 inches, 2018).
Much of the work, including Jared’s ill-fitting short-sleeved shirt and cotton chinos, and the cat peeking its head above his right thigh, is painted in a range of closely related tones of white and grays, so that his mismatched socks are almost startling.
Two canvases are abutted together for “Alannah and Jared Diptych.” Alannah is sitting in a broad, white wicker chair in the left panel, and Jared is sitting in a generic sofa chair in the right. They are together yet apart, which we could consider a metaphor for individuals who are members of large social units, as well as for life during a pandemic.
Tonally, the white chairs and walls are similar, so the earth reds, umbers, and muted blues of the rumpled carpet rising from the painting’s bottom edge are the strongest concentration of color in the composition. It is as if Alannah’s bare feet and Jared’s black shoes are holding the carpet down, preventing this wave of color from rising further.
A blank canvas is on the wall behind them. Traversing both panels, the “unpainted” canvas is cut off by the painting’s top edge, and is partially hidden by the uppermost leaves of an umbrella plant.
The blank canvas signals that painting, as a verb, is a way of living in time, of inhabiting a state of solitude, even when you are in a room with other people. Bailey’s subjects are clearly comfortable with having their portrait painted; they don’t feel the need to look or act formal, nor do they interact. Each of them inhabits his or her space, which the physical division of the diptychs underscores.
Using a muted palette dominated by dirty whites and pale grays, accented by warm earth tones, blues, and greens, Bailey’s painting reminded me of Italian frescos. Her sensitivity to her subjects’ skin tones and to the way a body fits inside clothes is unrivaled. Jared’s ghostly reflection in the pink windowpane is worthy of a painting in itself.
The setting for “Alannah and Jared Diptych,” with its pink windowpane facing in from the right side and the shallow, recessed space of a non-working fireplace on the left, is basically the same as that of the other four large paintings and many of the small, loosely painted ones in the exhibition Alix Bailey: New Paintings at the Painting Center (February 2–27, 2021).
Bailey’s attention to the setting makes it more than just a backdrop. In the masterful “Alex and Umbrella Plant (Early Version)” (oil on linen, 62 by 82 inches, 2020), which the artist told me she made after COVID-19 quarantine orders were in place, the window has been opened. Alex is sitting in a chair on the left side of the painting, just to the right of the fireplace. The chair has been covered with a tan-gray cloth. They wear a pullover with horizontal blue and white stripes and dark gray pants, their bare feet firmly planted on a tan and umber rug with shapes in soft red and blue hues. The small rug sets Alex off from the right side of the painting, which is occupied by a large umbrella plant placed on a white stool, on a white floor.
The rug, whose lower edge meets the painting’s bottom edge at a slight angle, reveals how much this work is based on observation. Bailey’s attention shifts between areas, making them all fit seamlessly together. While the rug’s right edge is perpendicular to the painting’s bottom, the left edge forms a diagonal extending out of the painting’s lower left-hand corner.
The slight shift in the angle of the stool, and the large flowerpot that rests on it, should remind us that figurative painters who rely completely on photographs usually fail to register these kinds of details. In photo-based paintings, we usually encounter images, not palpable forms inhabiting and animating a believable space.
“Alex and Umbrella Plant (Early Version)” also expresses the need to be socially distant, reflecting the time it was made. The space to right of Alex, where Jared was sitting in the pre-pandemic work “Alannah and Jared Diptych,” is occupied only by a plant in this painting.
Bailey’s artworks invite viewers into a pictorial space filled with an exquisite calming light. This is a world in which time has been slowed down, and whatever threatens or worries its subjects is temporarily kept at bay.
I mention the light in these paintings because I want to call attention to Bailey’s sensitivity to light, color, and skin tone, which are very different in the small painting “Jeanette in Lennart’s Studio” (oil on linen, 14 by 11 inches, 2019).
The setting is late realist painter Lennart Anderson’s studio. The all-over light seems to come from above, most likely a skylight. Anderson’s daughter, Jeanette, who is pregnant, is seated in a red chair partially covered by a white sheet. Behind her part of a painting by Lennart is on the wall — a cropped view of nude lying on green grass. The bright, glowing light — which seems to be celebrating Jeanette’s pregnancy — and the particular hue of green are found only in this painting.
While evenly dispersed throughout the room, the light in Bailey’s painting doesn’t come across as timeless or idealized. This adds a note of vulnerability to the composition, an unspoken sense that nothing is permanent.
In “Repertory” (oil on linen, 48 by 72 inches, 2021), the most recent painting in the exhibition, which includes work from 2018 through 2021, Bailey does something I have not previously seen in her work: she leaves human figures out of a large oil painting. It seems likely that the pandemic has pushed her into this territory.
On the painting’s left side, near the midpoint, a pair of black shoes — stand-ins for the absent figure — sits in the shallow recess of the fireplace.
Compositionally, the painting is defined by a vertical axis consisting of a black cat lying on its back, its tail pointed toward the top of the canvas, atop an earth-toned rug anchored by a white stool, on which the umbrella plant sits. The branches and leaves reach up to the mantelpiece, where we see a classical bust and a small black sculpture of a female nude, echoing the cat.
A blue and white teacup and a white vase are also on the mantelpiece. This room, with its plant, cat, and carpet, are, as the painting’s title suggests, the artist’s repertory or theater, where she stages her sittings — sans figures at this time of social distancing.
On the right side of “Repertory,” dominating the upper right quadrant, Bailey depicts a pink sheet, complete with creases where it had been folded, loosely attached to the wall. She has incorporated this pink covering before, particularly in the exquisite nude “Alannah and B” (oil on linen, 60 by 66 inches, 2018), but in other works it is a rumpled prop, something that someone is lying on.
In “Repertory,” it is a monochrome pink field; the grid of its folds evokes the path of abstraction that Bailey could have taken but didn’t.
In “Young Group” (oil on linen, 80 by 68 inches, 2020), which features models we’ve seen in other paintings, Jared’s poorly fitting shirt and Bailey’s use of a gray covering over the couch convey how far removed we are from the classical portraiture recalled by the figures’ poses.
A grouping of three young adults on a couch and a figure lying on the floor before them, looking up, “Young Group” is Bailey’s response to Lucian Freud’s well-known painting “Large Interior W11 (after Watteau)” (1981-83), which was his response to the Rococo artist.
Everyone in Freud’s painting looks vexed, which is not true of Bailey’s paintings, where her subjects seem both at ease and determined. The figure on the floor, with his head resting on a small pillow, is, in fact, smiling. They are comfortable with themselves and each other, even as their deshabille dress suggests that they aren’t concerned with today’s appearance-conscious world.
Over the past few years figure painting has become dominant in the art world, with much attention paid to the extreme, comical distortions of artists such as John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage and the memorializing portraits of Jordan Casteel and Chantal Joffe. Within this discourse, observational painting without an overt social message, a dose of irony, or signature stylization is seen as old-fashioned.
And yet, looking at Bailey’s paintings — her translation of spatial relationships onto a two-dimensional plane, her sensitivity to light and color, as well as her attention to circumstances (such as leaving out figures in response to the pandemic) — she has proven herself worthy of far more attention than she has received. Jared’s ill-fitting shirt, in which he seems perfectly comfortable, seems to me Bailey’s self-aware comment on her own work.
Alix Bailey: New Paintings continues at the Painting Center (547 West 27th Street, Suite 500, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 27.