Symbols & Knowledge & Histories

One of the best ways to appreciate an artist’s work is to learn the meaning of their most used symbols, but not just the basic definitions. Instead, you need to study the significance and value that they assign to those symbols, while also understanding the background and history each image possesses on its own. Only after that, can you start to comprehend the who, what, when, where, and why of an artist.

Applying this framework to this week’s featured artists, we can see layers and connections between them even though stylistically their works are very different. In our ‘Opening This Week’ choice, the art of Wifredo Lam takes Cubism’s shapes, Surrealism, Afro-Cuban history and religion, and European artistic training to produce a set of symbols used to comment on racial, political, and moral issues. The new show at Pace Gallery features different aspects of his symbols, from birds signifying attributes of Santaría gods, to his ‘femme cheval’ hybrid used as a stand-in for followers of Afro-Cuban religions as well as a reference to the exploitation, sexual and otherwise, of poor, mixed-race Cuban women.

Following a similar set of interests but using a mix of figurative and abstract styles, Radcliffe Bailey’s work (on view now at Jack Shainman Gallery and featured in our ‘Gallery Shows’ section) often references Black American history. His symbols include African art from regions where the European and American slave traders operated, maps of the United States with dates and arrows on them to focus viewers’ minds on national incidents, and using found objects to build a story or commemorate the unknown persons who are part of the historical record in the US. Bailey’s art and its symbols are a distillation of past, connecting to the present, with layers of information that engage, inform, and stay in the memory.