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Gilded: Contemporary Artists Explore Value and Worth

  • Radcliffe Bailey
    United States, born 1968
    Third Ward, 2013
    Wood door with gold leaf, carved wood lock, two iron pins, nail, bottle caps, and wood base
    89 x 33 x 10 in. 
    Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

    Themes of journey and memory propel Radcliffe Bailey’s poetic installations and sculptures. This door was reclaimed from a neighborhood of row houses in Houston’s Third Ward. A predominantly Black community originally occupied by freed slaves, it was known in the early 20th century for its rich music scene and economic vibrancy, but freeway development and urban flight have left the neighborhood a shell of its old self. Today, its community members continue to advocate for affordable housing.

    Along this door’s edge, remnants of multiple locks suggest past owners’ commitments to protecting their home, while Bailey’s addition of a carved antique lock from Mali suggests ancestral homelands in Africa. His gilding of the door’s front creates a warm glow evoking the richness of Third Ward’s cultural history. By contrast, that gold also highlights the back of the door, which Bailey left bare save for a handmade chain of bottlecaps—a signal of both the neighborhood’s hardships and what Bailey calls a “make-do” attitude.

    © Radcliffe Bailey, photo courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

  • Angela Fraleigh
    United States, born 1976
    These things are your becoming, 2014
    Oil, 23k gold leaf, metal leaf, and galkyd on canvas
    67 x 90 in.
    Courtesy of the artist

    Throughout history, women have often been painted as objects for the male gaze. In Angela Fraleigh’s work, however, they converse and engage—existing for themselves rather than a viewer. In her recreations of historic paintings, the artist extracts the male figures, drawing our attention to the women and creating space for them to exist on their own.

    In this image, Fraleigh combines figures from a 17th-century painting of the biblical story of Lot and his resourceful daughters with a thistle pattern taken from a 19th-century textile. This fabric was designed by Candace Wheeler, an American artist and women's rights advocate. Gilding the botanical design, Fraleigh honors both Wheeler and Lot’s daughters. Underscored by the title, These things are your becoming, the combined images become a tribute to the countless women who have taken control of their own fate.

    © Angela Fraleigh, photo by Ken EK, courtesy of the artist

  • Gajin Fujita
    United States, born 1972
    Invincible Kings of This Mad Mad World, 2017
    Spray paint, paint markers, Mean Streak, 24k gold leaf, 12k white gold leaf, platinum leaf, and gloss finish on panel
    Four parts, 96 x 48 in. each 
    Courtesy of the artist and L.A. Louver, Venice California

    So-called high and low art deliberately collide in the work of Gajin Fujita. As the child of Japanese parents, one an abstract landscape painter and the other a conservator, he turns frequently to Japanese artworks as sources for his work. Simultaneously, as a native of Los Angeles and former street artist, he lifts images from American street culture—often incorporating signature tags of other graffiti artists and popular commercial symbols.

    Here, the artist includes an image of the Japanese wind god Fujin with that of a lion, the king of the jungle. These symbols of power are underscored by the painting’s opulent gold-leafed surface. The abundance of natural elements—wind, flora, and fauna—speaks to Fujita’s concern for the environment, and his frustration with the human hubris that disregards it. “I painted this work in hopes that it would send a clear message that nature rules over all of us on this planet.”

    © Gajin Fujita, photo courtesy of the artist and L.A. Louver, Venice, California

  • Liz Glynn
    United States, born 1981
    Untitled Chest (After the Medici Grand Ducal Furniture Workshop), 2014
    Wood with casein paint, dye stain, and 23k gold leaf
    24 x 59 ½ x 21 ½ in.
    Courtesy of the artist, Vielmetter Los Angeles, and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

    Throughout her work, Liz Glynn consistently explores historic systems of valuation. The artist completed her MFA in 2008 as the housing market crashed and the Great Recession began. That context fueled her interest in utility, worth, and the structure of economies—themes pointedly resonant again today.

    In her 2014 installation, Hold Nothing, of which this chest was a part, Glynn recreated furniture once owned by Italy’s historic banking family, the Medici, during the height of its power in 15th-century Florence. Covered entirely in gold leaf, it resembles a gold bar—an easily recognized form that harks back to the first Egyptian ingots. Within the exhibition, she activated her furniture re-creations by appointing movers to carry and arrange them in the gallery space, periodically opening their lids to reveal empty interiors. As these actions unfolded, she read a text recounting the evolving immateriality of money over time. Her attention to this history is particularly poignant in the midst of today’s rise of cryptocurrency—the most extreme abstraction of finances yet.

    © Liz Glynn, photo by Mark Menjivar, courtesy of the artist, Vielmetter Los Angeles, and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

  • Titus Kaphar
    United States, born 1976
    Jerome XLVIII, 2015
    Oil, gold leaf, and tar on panel
    10 x 7 ¼ x 1 ⅛ in.
    Rennie Collection, Vancouver

    Titus Kaphar mines art history as a means of understanding racism and social injustice. In 2011, his research took a personal turn when searching for the prison records of his estranged father. He was surprised to find ninety-nine mugshots of different Black men with his father’s name, Jerome. That multiplicity fueled a critical examination of the overrepresentation of Black men in the US prison system, who at that moment were incarcerated at roughly seven times the rate of White men.

    Taking cues from Byzantine icons, Kaphar created gilded portraits of the Jerome mugshots, then partially covered each in tar. The contrasting materials foreground notions of prominence and erasure. Gilding marks the men as subjects of attention, while the tar obscures their faces and alludes to the invisibility of individuals within the prison system. Never fully erased, these gilded images function as devotionals dedicated to considering lives we might otherwise deem unworthy.

    © Titus Kaphar, photo courtesy of the artist and Rennie Collection, Vancouver

  • Stacy Lynn Waddell
    United States, born 1966
    Untitled (Floral Relief 1640), 2022
    22k gold leaf and acrylic medium on paper
    30 x 22 in.
    Courtesy of the artist and Candice Madey, New York

    Stacy Lynn Waddell explores history as it relates to the present. In this series, she turns to the famed 17th-century Dutch flower paintings that captured the wealth of the region’s “Golden Age.” These artworks’ abundant compositions, full of varieties of local and exotic flowers, reference commerce and learning. Impossible to assemble in real life, they were imaginatively created from specimens in carefully tended gardens and from libraries of botanical books—both direct results of expanding Dutch trade across the globe.

    Rather than recreating the images’ vibrant colors, she focuses on their lines, creating new images in which the blooms look dried—a shift that suggests current concerns with ecological fragility. She then gilds these images, making them difficult to take in. They require patience and physical shifts to see fully. Waddell hopes the gold also resonates symbolically. She is interested in our association of gold with desire and in the dual nature of such want. If pursued blindly, desire—for such things as wealth or power—can lead to harm. But, if followed productively, desire—for such states as peace or health—can lead us towards positive change.

    © Stacy Lynn Waddell, photo by Kunning Huang, courtesy of the artist and Candice Madey, New York

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