1996 was my first year out of undergraduate school at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and my first year living in NYC. The first art book I bought as a new New Yorker was a William Bailey monograph and in the back there’s a great black and white photo from 1973 of William Bailey standing outside of a rustic old stone building in Umbria, Italy with his family including his son Ford, daughter Alix, and wife Sandra. It’s a beautiful photo and it made an indelible impression the first time I saw it. My imagination went to work on that photo then and never stopped. Where were they in 1996 and what were they doing?
Skip ahead to January 2018 and I’m sitting with Alix Bailey in her airy Manhattan studio filled with white daylight – giddy with excitement that I’ve entered into the world of the grown up version of the little girl in that photo who I’ve been curious about for so many years – and she’s a dynamite painter and a deeply soulful person!
John Mitchell: You are one in a long tradition of painters who had a parent or parents who were also painters; the Brueghel family, Pablo Picasso, and Alberto Giacometti spring to mind. What are examples of guiding principles that you employ in the studio that have come from your mother – Sandra Stone and your father – William Bailey?
JM: How would you describe the paintings you’re working on now and how are they different from paintings you were making 10 years ago?
AB: Ten years ago I was painting mostly self-portraits and small quick paintings of friends, family, and hired models from direct observation in natural light. Right now I’m painting mostly larger longer-term paintings of the whole figure and I’m changing the way that I work. I’ve become increasingly interested in finding a balance between what is invented in response to direct observation and what is invented in response to relationships found on the canvas. I am less concerned now with the fleeting precarious nature of working directly from life – the improvisational nature of it. That aspect of painting still excites me but now it’s more of a stepping off point. I’m also incorporating my love of textiles and pattern.
JM: Thomas Eakins described light as “The big tool”. How do you use light? How do you light your paintings while you’re working? How do you light the motif? When you depart from direct observation and work in response to relationships on the canvas, how are you thinking about light?
AB: For me, light is not so much a “tool” as it is my motif, my guide, my reason for painting. I think that painting IS light! A painting can be lit from a source or lit from within. I could paint anyone in the world but I only want to do it in my studio or a similarly lit environment. I love the slow timeless quality of natural indirect light. And I like that it is always changing a little (but hopefully not too much in one session!). Right now if a head is not working for example, I’ll repaint it away from the model until it works – it all has to work within the painting that’s all- rather than to be faithful to objective reality.
JM: How would you describe your working process with a model present and how is it different when the model is not present?
AB: Once I set things up I usually ask the sitter to look straight past me. The first time someone poses for me is usually difficult because I feel a lot of pressure – to make sure they are comfortable, that my painting is worthy of their time, that the intimacy of the situation is a positive thing. That pressure can either force me into my painting zone or distract me from it. I want everyone in the world to pose for me but the idea of going through that anxiety is what stops me from asking. I would rather they did not talk too much or at all because thinking verbally often takes me out of the part of my brain that is painting. This is hard because I’m otherwise a pretty chatty curious person. I also really want people to hold still. I don’t want to be fussing and wrestling with the drawing of the figure too much because it takes me away from the painting experience I really want to be having – I want to be moving all over the painting and connecting colors as I move through all of it. Working this way has made me have to embrace my more bossy side and not be such a pleaser. That said I really love getting to know the people who sit for me and feel a very strong connection to them. Sometimes I listen to a never-ending shuffle of everything on my iPod and sometimes I listen to Dylan all day, maybe even all week or all month but I try to only do that when I’m alone. Lately more and more when I am alone I find myself painting in silence.
I have a very limited palette. I might start the painting day mixing some basic colors but mostly I’m quickly mixing on the palette with my brush as I go – grabbing from here and there, then stopping to make more if there’s a big area to cover. I really love mixing colors. Its maybe the only part of painting that is pure pleasure. Once the canvas becomes tacky I scrape the fat off.
My painting day ends when its time to cook dinner for my daughters. Maybe I can steal away for an hour here or there If they are busy. If they are at their Dad’s house I might skip dinner and just sit in my studio armchair jotting notes, looking at my art books, sketching ideas for new paintings, making small adjustments to the painting or just staring at my painting not really thinking of anything for maybe hours. That’s a big part of the process. Painting from a home studio is really the only way for me to get enough studio time and I am still definitely greedy for more.
JM: Can you talk about the work in your upcoming exhibition?
AB: One of the paintings I’m most excited about and hope to continue working on after the show comes down, is a double portrait of my model Alannah and her husband Jared. The process of painting them was thrilling and poignant. It strikes me as I look around the studio that after years of painting self portraits, these paintings of young models – either nude, clothed, or in a couple – feel the most personal – the veiled elegy of a mature woman!
Alix Bailey’s solo exhibition opens on Thursday, February 1, from 6-8 PM and will be on view through February 24, 2018 at The Painting Center located at 547 West 27th Street, Suite 500, NY, NY, 10001. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11-6 PM. For more information go to www.thepaintingcenter.org
To see more of Alix Bailey’s work, go to her website: www.alixbailey.com