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‘Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts’ Review: He Made a ‘Pill for the Pain’

‘Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts’ Review: He Made a ‘Pill for the Pain’

Many of the works by the Alabama artist Bill Traylor, stark silhouette drawings with striking, significant blocks of color, are drawn on scraps of paper, or someone else’s stationery — things like that. This wasn’t Traylor’s way of making a postmodern statement; he was just using the art supplies he had.

Traylor was born into slavery in 1853 and died in 1949. His work is an enigmatic and vital part of the American art canon. This documentary, directed by Jeffrey Wolf, is a plain, sincere, nourishing account of the artist. Wolf makes excellent use of photo and film archives, laying out the territory that fed Traylor’s vision: dirt roads, railroad tracks, backwoods. These places, the critic and musician Greg Tate notes in the film, lay the ground for the “mystical realm” of Traylor’s work: The deliberately two-dimensional figures and the limited but bold colors have the transfixing power of a waking dream.

In this realm the color blue is particularly significant. Tate waxes eloquent on embracing “the blues” in order to “keep the blues off.” The visual artist Radcliffe Bailey says of his own work, “That’s Traylor’s blue, not Yves Klein. I picked up that blue from him.”

The evocations of Montgomery’s Monroe Street in the 1930s and ’40s — that era’s “city that never sleeps,” according to one interviewee — are vivid. Traylor set up shop there, outside a pool hall, drawing with his blunt instruments and available paper and sleeping in the coffin storage room of a nearby funeral home. His health problems eventually led to the amputation of one of his legs. In his drawings he often looked back — to moments of respite from the traumatic world he grew up in, such as afternoons at a local swimming hole.

“I see his work as a pill for the pain,” Bailey says in the film. It remains powerful medicine today.

Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes. In theaters and on virtual cinemas. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.

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