WELLESLEY - Covering most of the floor in a gallery at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, “Windward Coast,’’ an installation by Radcliffe Bailey, is a pile of 35,000-odd wooden piano keys with black and white tips, extracted from 400 pianos.
The pile has been spread out and shaped into a vast rectangle. Its edges are neat, but inside those edges it undulates, conjuring a turbulent, wind-whipped sea. Nothing relieves the rhythmic motion of these rough and splintered piles of wood (they feel like a sculptural equivalent of cross-hatching, or perhaps a giant game of Pick Up Sticks), except for a sculpted head, covered in black glitter, emerging from the waves of wood.
A conch shell is also attached to a corner wall. It emits a percussive sound, an audio recording of the artist dropping the pieces of wood as he constructed the work.
For Bailey, an African-American who was born in 1968 and is based in Atlanta, the piece - like all his work - triggers many possible meanings. It evokes, most immediately, the slave trade and the “Middle Passage,’’ a term used to describe the thousands of ship voyages that transported slaves from the west coast of Africa to the Americas.
But it may also evoke other historical disasters, from Hurricane Katrina to the tsunami that recently wrought such havoc in Japan, both of which Bailey has said he had in mind when he created the piece, between 2009 and 2011.
It suggests, too, more private meanings for Bailey - specifically, the fishing trips he made with his father as a boy when, sitting in a boat far from shore, he felt, he has said, “so small.’’
And of course, through the piano keys, the piece suggests the historical continuity of music, a recurring trope in Bailey’s work, which is always to some degree about memory, both personal and historical.
“I see myself as a vessel, and things come through me,’’ the artist said in a talk he gave in Atlanta last year.
The piece is the highlight of an impressive survey of Bailey’s work called “Memory as Medicine,’’ which comes to the Davis from the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. It’s one of a series of shows devoted to African-Americans in Massachusetts this winter, ranging from “African Americans and the American Scene, 1929-1945’’ at the Williams College Museum of Art to “In Search of Julien Hudson, Free Artist of Color in Pre-Civil War New Orleans’’ at the Worcester Art Museum, “Sanford Biggers: The Cartographer’s Conundrum’’ at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and “We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball’’ at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art (see story on Page 10).
(Both Bailey and Biggers, it’s interesting to note, cite as a major influence Sun Ra, the jazz composer, keyboard player, and cosmic philosopher who claimed he was from Saturn.)
Not every work in “Memory as Medicine’’ is as successful or striking as “Windward Coast.’’ But Bailey is never less than ambitious. And what stands out above all else is the jazzy, improvisational inventiveness of his work, each piece’s extraordinary richness of connotation.
This richness is a result of the way Bailey likes to layer his work, so it reveals itself slowly, like a palimpsest or archeological dig. Occasionally, the promiscuity of each work’s personal, political, and poetic references overwhelm the forms he finds to contain them.
But on the other hand, part of what makes the show so intoxicating is the sheer variety in media, materials, and scale: It includes massive paintings that incorporate found objects, photographs, and elaborate frames, as well as collages, watercolors, sculptures, and assemblages.
The same materials or ideas crop up in works that otherwise have nothing in common, encouraging lateral leaps of the imagination. The more time you spend in the show, the more of these you see, and the more affecting the experience.
The black glitter, for instance, that covers the drowning man’s head in “Windward Coast’’ entirely covers an ostensibly unrelated sculpture called “Tricky.’’ The piece is a large model yacht or clipper, with a top hat perched on its top mast.
The image is arresting. You want to know more. It turns out that the top hat is an attribute commonly associated with the Yoruba deity Eshu, a trickster figure similar to those in Native American cultures and even to the jester or fool in European traditions.
Artists in almost every culture, it turns out, have a history of identifying themselves with fools and tricksters. Bailey is no different. The work, therefore, can be seen as a self-portrait, the vessel standing in for the artist cast adrift, navigating by the light of the glittering stars that somehow become him even as they guide him.
Another spellbinding work, “Minor Keys,’’ connects the motif of the piano with the cosmos (and thus Sun Ra). Affixed to a wall, the outlines of a grand piano as seen from above acts as a frame for a diorama-like display of small, suspended planets against a chaotic thicket of piano keys covered in black encaustic.
“Transbluesency,’’ meanwhile, is a densely layered collage incorporating a photograph of anonymous African-Americans behind Plexiglas. Its overlaid network of light blue lines suggest the dispersal not only of the blues, but of the memories, traditions, sufferings, and resiliency they embody throughout the American continent, from north to south and from east to west.
Most of the photographs Bailey uses in his work come from photo albums presented to him by his grandmother. Only about a third of the people who appear in these albums were identifiable, and Bailey prefers to use the images of those who weren’t. The decision taps into the universalizing strain in his work - a generous, tentacled embrace of different experiences, different histories, from the most personal and immediate to the most distant.
It’s as if Bailey, who has undergone a DNA test that traced his ancestry back to Guinea and Sierra Leone, were obeying an urge to reclaim the stories and traditions of numberless ancestors, stories that were ripped from the fabric of his and his people’s being by the sustained, dehumanizing cruelty of slavery.
One of the most poignant works in the show is a large watercolor depicting - again - a boat at sea. Filling the boat, collaged onto the picture’s surface, is pile-up of cut-out photographs of African statuary of every kind.
Again, the work evokes the rapacious greed and ruthlessness of the Middle Passage, and its indiscriminate herding together of hitherto separate African cultures, traditions, and languages. It suggests, too, the ways in which the indiscriminate lumping together of separate entities can promote a kind of rupture and forgetting.
In a talk he gave last year in Atlanta, which I have watched on the Internet, Bailey began almost every new thought with “I remember,’’ so that the phrase took on a musical, incantatory effect, not unlike the recurring motifs in his work. Music, he also said, “is the glue to my work.’’
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.