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The Artwork of Lawrence James Bailey: Failed Escapes
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The Artwork of Lawrence James Bailey: Failed Escapes

Picture of Tom Coggins
Updated: 12 December 2015
The relationship between creativity and isolation has long been documented. Those eager to perfect their art have repeatedly fled the confines of society. Many social movements have valorized this flight, glorifying the individual who finds solace in nature. Escape, though, leads individuals down unforeseen paths, where sanctuaries may transform into prisons and utopias into ruin. This desire for escape embodies visual artist Lawrence James Bailey’s work, as he explores the precarious nature of self-imposed isolation.
The artist | Courtesy of Lawrence James Bailey
The artist | Courtesy of Lawrence James Bailey

Born in Stoke-on-Trent, England, but now firmly established in Amsterdam, Bailey’s childhood still informs his work. As a member of the post-Thatcherite generation, he experienced first-hand the collapse of a once prosperous section of society, witnessing the industrial dismantling of Northern England. He explains that, bored with suburban life, he and his friends would escape to the ‘vacant plots of one-time industrial sites.’ Playfully transforming formerly functional machinery and architecture into a vision of wilderness, ready for exploration. This adolescent retreat, Bailey believes, shares many characteristics with historic, and contemporary, movements obsession with an outside, free from societal pressures.

A Place For Ugliness (2014), Marker pen on fluorescent paper (30x39cm) | © Lawrence James Bailey
A Place For Ugliness (2014), Marker pen on fluorescent paper (30x39cm) | © Lawrence James Bailey

Often, dissidents are unable to flee the city, instead carving out a personal space within its limits. And by using intermodal shipping containers as his subject, Bailey illustrates these failed escapes. The boxes, he explains, are regularly used by marginalized groups as improvised sanctuaries. Places where they can hide from the public’s disapproving gaze. Positioning these refuges on desolate backgrounds, he ironically accentuates the impossibility of true detachment. There is no ‘proper wilderness anymore,’ he explains, only a vain glimpse of an outside. Devoid of any visible human activity, the crates suggest an invisible presence, some activity going on, unseen, behind their windowless walls. Seclusion, we’re reminded, can too often result in alienation rather than tranquility.

With his series Historic Forts Bailey shows how individuals commonly conceived as restlessly fighting the establishment were unified in their need for sanctuary. Depicting the now vacant retreats of figures as diverse as Rosa Luxemburg, Tolstoy, and Thoreau, the series reminds us of the humanity of modern history’s great detractors. Even radicals must rest, taking time to meditate, often within the confines of the culture they are so eager to criticize. Using black ink on paper, Bailey bleakly outlines their altogether ordinary abodes, simply captioning the pieces with a citation from the person in question.

When Technology Fails (2014), fine liner and marker on colored paper (24.3x34.7cm) | © Lawrence James Bailey
When Technology Fails (2014), fine liner and marker on colored paper (24.3×34.7cm) | © Lawrence James Bailey

Following Aristotle’s warning that those that do not partake in society are either beasts or gods, Bailey’s latest series Four Modern Utopias focuses on extreme examples of societal detachment. Studying the idyllic locations occupied by radical groups whose desire ‘to be left alone and to live by their own beliefs in a kind of self-created rebel Utopia’ resulted in tragedy. Distantly portraying Mount Carmel in Waco, Texas, Jonestown in Guyana, the Californian mansion of the Heaven’s Gate group, and the property of the Weaver family in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, the series examines how people, dissatisfied with society’s inadequacies can replicate and aggravate the ills they condemned. The pictures, once again empty apart from a single property, say nothing for the criminal acts committed on their grounds, with only the caption revealing the significance of the locations.

As an artist, Bailey takes large cues from the counter-culture movements of the mid-twentieth century, specifically the Amsterdam based anarchist group Provo, whose happenings he replicates in his visual arts. With his recent work Urban Fingerprint celebrating the fiftieth year anniversary of the group’s formation. Famously, Provo set ablaze the Het Lieverdje statue on Amsterdam’s Spui, in defiance of the consumerism and tobacco addiction which they saw as plaguing society. To commemorate Provo’s heritage Bailey was invited by the Museum of Amsterdam to depict this pivotal moment in the movement’s history. Framing the image of the burning statue within concentric rings, symbolizing the canals of the city, and the dispersion of Provo’s influence throughout the Netherlands’ political landscape. Provo’s resistance, though, was doomed to failure, a fact recognized by the group stating in their eponymous publication:

‘Provo calls for resistance wherever possible. Provo realizes that it will lose in the end, but it cannot pass up the chance to make at least one more heartfelt attempt to provoke society.’ (Provo Magazine #16 (1962))

A thought that resonates throughout Bailey’s work, with his studies stoically recounting resistance’s inevitable failure.

From the Series Historic Forts / Rosa Luxemburg (2015), Indian ink on paper (42x29.7cm) | © Lawrence James Bailey
From the Series Historic Forts / Rosa Luxemburg (2015), Indian ink on paper (42×29.7cm) | © Lawrence James Bailey
From the Series Four Modern Utopias/No.4 Ruby Ridge (2014), drawing ink on paper | © Lawrence James Bailey
From the Series Four Modern Utopias/No.4 Ruby Ridge (2014), drawing ink on paper | © Lawrence James Bailey

Seeing parallels between social defiance, childish playfulness and, teenage rebellion, Bailey has recently begun researching the effects that individual history has on collective acts of dissent. Opposition does not occur in a vacuum, but is the result of an individual’s subjective development, drawing upon a feeling of injustice connected to their formative years, often driven by a need to escape an authority seen as restricting their freedom.

By Tom Coggins

Artist’s contact:

www.lawrencejamesbailey.com

https://instagram.com/lawjamba/

Link to Amsterdam Museum article on Bailey and Provo:

http://hart.amsterdammuseum.nl/102527/nl/urban-fingerprint

Urban Fingerprint (Magic Circle of Civil Disobedience) (2015), linoprint on paper (50x50cm) | © Lawrence James Bailey
Urban Fingerprint (Magic Circle of Civil Disobedience) (2015), linoprint on paper (50x50cm) | © Lawrence James Bailey