Alex Bay, as the saying goes, wouldn’t join any club that would have him. And if movements in art are clubs of a sort, Bay transcends membership even in these amorphous precincts. He is a man of extraordinary independence and autonomy; he relies on a combination of rich imagination and brilliant conceptual skill to create his own world within worlds of narrative art. He remains quite disengaged from the several domains of visual art (commercial galleries and museums) whose by-laws demand either a highly developed competitive nature, or the luxury of deep patronage. Bay belongs to a small society of American artists who reside somewhere between sophisticated practitioners within its traditions, and the category of “visionary,” or “outsider,” or “self-taught” artists. Two examples of his fellows in this fraternity are Joseph Cornell and Edward Kienholz, one an obsessive poetic miniaturist, the other an obstreperous and politically/historically attuned maker of large tableaux. Sequestered in a rural environment, Bay works in a barnlike studio he built himself, and rarely welcomes anyone. Filled with his work, some old and some new, it’s difficult to distinguish one discrete piece from another. The objects are arranged around the edges in ranks, ranging from the dauntingly complex, intricate, and ambitious pieces of wall mounted sculpture—to a number of small, freestanding pieces. His works are comprised of many parts, some found, some recycled, some constructed, and some contain small, old-fashioned, abstract paintings. The studio has a paradoxically chaotic and well-ordered character that some tend to create through constant work, and begin, temporarily abandon, and return to a great number of projects over many months and years. The sense of being in a space with layers of thought and eventful internal history, is heightened by the fact that many of the works involve motion and sound. The feeling in this studio is of a vast and serious excavation of memory, a kind of urgent record of recollections and feelings and ideas whose depth is unknowable, all subsumed in an aura of an intensely autobiographical, compositionally repetitive, aesthetic sensibility.
By his own account, Alex came late to artmaking, leaving careers first as an intelligence officer in the United States Navy (where, through his work in satellite imaging, he happened to be directly involved in the discovery of nuclear weapons in Cuba during the Kennedy administration’s missile crisis), and subsequently as a scientist/engineer working in spy satellite technology and computer applications in the private sector. It wasn’t until he was in his forties that he made the decision to renounce his professional life and turn to making art full time. In 1979 Living in Washington, DC, at the end of a marriage, disliking his (lucrative) career, renouncing a longtime reliance on booze, and, in his own words, still “suffering from a grand ambition to make something great” he took a leave of absence from his job and enrolled in two studio classes at the Corcoran School of Art. There he encountered the eminent abstract painter, Gene Davis, who, Bay says, “did not teach ‘how to’ paint. He offered a philosophy of art which emphasized creativity, fearlessness and engagement. He served to reinforce my beliefs with his emphasis on art as a stance requiring little or no traditional technical abilities. He recommended that the artist become unbound intellectually.” Bay began almost immediately to employ his electrical and mechanical aptitude along with the drawing and painting skills he developed in his earliest years, and to teach himself welding and carpentry. He simply pushed forward, in an atmosphere of considerable self-doubt at first, but never forgetting Gene Davis’ precepts of freedom, and the importance of breaking the rules. Davis pointed out to Bay that there are plenty of artists who can “draw like the angels,” whose millions of pretty pictures are consigned to oblivion.
Beginning in the late 1990s, Bay began work on a series of ambitious constructions, large-scale, horizontally rectangular grids—shallow wood-framed compartments, or cells--each filled with a sculptural incident, entirely back-lit, mounted on legs or platform, the largest over twenty feet in width. These environmentally-scaled works require prolonged consideration from the viewer, with an occasional turn of a crank to set the whole piece in motion—clanking or ringing when metal hits metal and sometimes the push of a button to activate audio recordings that form a narrative subsidiary to the larger construct. The mobile-like sculptures, made curved metal wire sometimes incorporate small petal forms, created with translucent fiberglass. The wire pieces are often kinetic: compound pendulums of balanced elements that pivot or swing when a mechanical crank is turned. These distinctively delicate objects serve as a kind of three-dimensional drawing element pervading the large, cell-form works, marking them indelibly as Alex Bay creations. The translucent, light-struck petal shapes--ranging in color from neutral grays and browns, to lavender, green and yellow—lend these enormous works an air of playfulness and charm, a cursive linearity and decorative incident that draws the eye and piques the mind.
Bay’s distinctive niche-form constructions, however, transcend the merely charming worlds of meandering visual play. Overlaid on this element of blithe, seductive, three-dimensional drawing, is another atmosphere: one of decay, nostalgia, difficulty and darkness. Another frequent ingredient in Bay’s grid-constructions, his a generic invention, alludes to ancient books or scrolls: small, thick sheaves of worn brown paper, bound bundles tied with brown string. He sometimes places several of these in a single compartment. These roughly rectangular objects, measuring no more than five inches, are powerfully redolent of the dusty passage of time, and serve as talismanic counterweights to the lyricism of the wire-fiberglass sculptures. The curvilinear, translucent wing-and-petal forms, and the little string-bound paper bundles, constitute some of the recurrent, preoccupations of Alex Bay’s work. And yet each of these enormously complex sculptures is, in its parts, more different from, than similar to, any other. Taken together, the sculptures contain unfathomable worlds of memory, opinion and imagination—often couched in terms both literary and pop cultural, some private and some transparent, each construct harboring its own thematic gestalt.
“Rudy’s Garage,” anchors the present exhibition, a large wall-mounted sculptural accretion. Like so many of Bay’s most ambitious works, it was years in the making, he began it in late 2012. Abandoned (nearly complete) in 2013, he turned his attention to a more monumentally ambitious (as yet uncompleted) table-top work, returning to finish it in 2017. At twelve feet, “Rudy’s Garage,” is a mid-size cell-construct, but it is also one of the more technically complex. A cranking device, located at left, activates a lateral push-pull movement of the entire sculpture, triggering an intricate series of compound pendulums in the various compartments. Sounds, normally inaudible, are picked up and amplified by piezoelectric transducers. In addition to the familiar fiberglass and metal sculptures, and a few newspaper bundles, the piece includes several small audio speakers and, as is typical, pieces of collage-work (often with words) and—another frequent element in his work -- abstract paintings on panel. On its face, this strikingly intricate-yet-integrated work, seen from a distance, stands as a marvelous piece of art. An exaggeratedly large-scale collage in the modernist tradition--it need do nothing more than sit there. At this level one might conjure, for comparison, the sculptor/maker Louise Nevelson.
But “Rudy’s Garage” is about something--something very specific. Existing within, and at a sort of meta-level to its surface appearance (which itself takes extended time to fully absorb) the work contains another dimension. For besides the symbolic theme of its interconnecting images, and the written words contained in an old Rube Goldberg cartoon, it houses audio recordings of dialogue between three characters—Rudy, Malinchek and a female customer—whose voices create fragments of old fashioned radio dramas. These pieces of conversation come into a static filtered vernacular life when one pushes on of five red-buttons, separately activating audio recordings. Rudy and Malinchek are characters taken from the artist’s long ago acquaintance with two men in the gas station/garage where, many decades ago, he took his 1968 Ford Falcon Wagon to be serviced. Malinchek was the boss of this establishment; Rudy, his unskilled and hapless customer service attendant/lacky. The artist remembers Rudy as “a compound of machismo and southern roughneck posturing.” Malinchek, as is clear in listening to his persona in the scratchy recordings, is impatient to the point of brutality, not above using the little power he wields over his single minion, at every turn. In each piece of foreshortened radio drama, the irritable Malinchek barks at Rudy or mutters about him in disgust. Rudy seems always to be doing his long-suffering best to contain the chaos he is creating by his macho incompetence. Far from disdain, the whole scenario, in the sensibility of the artist, is a universal rumination on human nature. The voices of the two men (recorded with the artist and friends reading from written dialogue) take on a timeless quality, wisps of the ether from a long-ago era. Like the genre of 1940s and ‘50s radio, their emanations form an enveloping labyrinth, an esthetically layered context, somehow both urgent and distant. At the lower edge of the enormous work is a collage/painting representing a filling station bathroom; it incorporates a window through which is glimpsed a rundown city neighborhood. This painting was made many years earlier, and incorporated into the present piece as its overall narrative developed.
Alex Bay describes Rudy’s Garage as a reflection on the limitations of our discernment. “We are inherently mismatched at both ends of our capabilities: At the cosmic end we cannot begin to understand a universe so vast and of such enormous number. A light year is an abstraction and its reality is beyond our ability to understand. At the other end of the spectrum, the atomic world is equally incomprehensible. But our little world is surrounded by exquisite processes, throwing out sparks of beauty which we either cannot see or choose to ignore. Rudy’s Garage is the entire world of Rudy and Malinchek. They neither see, nor apprehend the larger universe. The mundane experience of their lives operates in a partial vacuum of experiential events. Sounds, motions, feelings redound outside the horizon of their notice.”
We are informed through this description--the artist means to reflect upon a universal philosophical conundrum in fashioning this complex and mysterious work. But we are made starkly aware that he is operating simultaneously in another, specifically autobiographical, realm. Bay says the gas station restroom painting, “represents the essence of what it was like to be a youth in the age of the mid-twentieth century. Rudy represents the marginal boys who populated the ranks of the working poor. Malinchek: the pseudo-tough, small businessman making a living a notch above his employees. The girl who is served by these two paragons is Clotho [one of the Three Fates in Greek mythology], spinning out her life threads with an ironic smile and with a measure of amused compassion.”
If we want to place Alex Bay in the context of those other makers of tableaux I have mentioned—Joseph Cornell, Edward Kienholz and Louis Nevelson—the nature of his distinctiveness begins to clear. Unlike these earlier weavers of personal mythologies and comments on their time, Bay brings a theatrical and literary aura to bear on his accretions. The personal is interwoven with the allegorical in enormous structures that are rough-hewn and yet delicately ornamental, at the same time densely narrative and visually abstract, operating always at both micro and macro levels. Bay’s outlier oeuvre weaves a singular, unabashedly eccentric and compelling web of imagery and sound whose resonances linger and haunt.