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Clayton Bailey retrospective opens at Crocker Museum

  • October 16, 2011

One Northern California artist holds a patent on a novelty cup that squirts liquid in the eye of the drinker.

He also has been nominated for a Nobel Prize.

And he has a curly mustache that measures 24 inches when stretched out.

Count yourself among the cognoscenti if you've identified the man who arguably is the strangest artist around, Clayton Bailey. Yet Bailey, who is being given a 50-year retrospective by the Crocker Art Museum opening at noon Saturday, is a contradiction in terms.

He is a mischievous satirist with counterculture sources such as Mad magazine, Zap Comix and items found in the back of funny books, such as whoopee cushions and hot pepper gum. He is also a distinguished professor emeritus at California State University, Hayward, and was recognized as Artist of the Year in 2010 by the California Arts Council at the California State Fair.

Add to that grants from the American Craft Council, the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and you have the profile of a highly recognized insider who trafficks in the realm of outsider artists who create their own worlds and environments.

A visit to Bailey's home and studio between the East Bay towns of Crockett and Port Costa is like stepping into another world.

"Look for gargoyles on a redwood fence, and an aluminum rocket ship in the front yard," he advised, as he ended his emailed instructions on how to get there. Ringing a bell outside the fence brought Bailey to the gate, his mustache curling devilishly down from his upper lip, to welcome me into his wacky world.

He ushered me into a cluttered yard filled with more gargoyles and his latest experiments – exploding pots made from the clay he digs up in his backyard. Most clay shrinks in firing, but this clay body expands and froths and breaks open in the firing process. These pots, blistered and blown apart, would be considered abject failures by most potters, but to Bailey they are wonderful examples of what can happen when you have an inquiring mind.

Bailey, who started out to study pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin, took a ceramics class there that changed his life. He did not follow his teacher Harvey Littleton into the realm of utilitarian pottery in the Japanese tradition. Rather, inspired by lectures by visiting professor Peter Voulkos, Bailey set about experimenting right away, producing odd objects with erotic overtones.

These scabrous, gaudily colored "Nite Pots" are among the first objects in his show at the Crocker. Soon he was making such uncouth objects as "burping bowls" and runny "nose pots."

After teaching stints in Wisconsin, Iowa and South Dakota, he decided to move West. He felt affinities with the Funk art of Robert Arneson, Roy DeForest and David Gilhooly. He and his wife, Betty, whom he met in junior high school, traveled to the Bay Area, settling in an abandoned cafe in Crockett.

Unannounced, Bailey showed up at Hayward State and was hired on the spot. A year later, he and Betty moved into a house in Bull Valley next door to DeForest and his wife, Gloria.

The yard and studio there have become the repository for his "scientific" and "anthropological" discoveries. Moving past the exploding pots, you come upon a series of jugs and stills, inspired by American folk pottery and medieval alchemy. "Snake Oil Bottle Still With Jug" and "Hyper-Melted Corrosive Jug" with internal illumination are among the examples of this aspect of Bailey's work on view at the Crocker.

But the biggest treats are contained in his rambling studio complex filled with thrift store finds, robots and ray guns made of found objects and weird "discoveries" from his "World of Wonders" oeuvre. One is immediately taken aback by a female skeleton that jumps when a motion sensor is set off. "Jumping Judy" welcomes you to the arcane objects that wind in labyrinthine fashion through the studio.

Passing a quirky and wonderfully crafted array of robots, including "Marilyn Monrobot" and "Tipsy, the Wine Loving Robot" passed out in an aluminum goblet, you walk under a sign from the "Wonders of the World" museum that Bailey owned and operated in downtown Port Costa from 1976 to 1978. Now ensconced in his studio, it contains such items as "Big Foot Bones With Display Crate" and "Giant Cyclops Skull," "discovered" by his alter ego, Dr. George Gladstone.

As Gladstone, Bailey "found" these "Kaolithic Bone Age" specimens in Port Costa, as well as a giant sea serpent in Florida. So convincing and thorough was the put-on surrounding these "discoveries," they were actually reported in newspapers as real events. A showing of objects from the "Wonders of the World" museum at the de Young prompted a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley, to nominate Bailey for a Nobel Prize as a protest of the awarding of prizes to scientists who contributed to the making of implements of war and destruction.

Bailey, 72, also creates objects made by his "mad scientist" avatar, among them "Dangerous Brain Bowl," a ceramic sculpture that would be disgusting except for its wonderfully handled luster glazes and overall "fool the eye" quality. Other scientific devices include a "Fossil Tester," a "Brain Control Box" and a "Photon Generator," all looking like antiquated, low-tech machines from science fiction movies.

Not all critics have admired Bailey's creations, though. San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker once wrote that though "excellently made," Bailey's pieces "finally evoke a satirical vision too down-home and cartoonish to chime with our real feelings about the contemporary world." But Baker's predecessor Thomas Albright correctly cited Bailey as a practitioner of the "personal myth making" that characterized many of the important figures in Bay Area art.

Whether you agree with Baker or Albright, one thing is certain. Bailey is a loner, an American original in the tradition of humorists such as Mark Twain or Rube Goldberg. As Crocker curator Diana Daniels notes in her brilliant catalog essay for the exhibition, "it is not surprising that he and his art have often befuddled critics." But she points out, "the observations of satirists and humorists often outlast the quirks and frictions of an age and in the long term provide much richer insights."

As for Bailey himself, he says "My job is not to go for oohs and aahs, 'isn't that beautiful, but 'what the hell is that?' " He sees himself as an antagonist who invites viewers to experience his work and think about whether they like it or not and why. As a whimsical provocateur questioning the values of high and low art, he can't be beat.

For a special treat, log on to his website,


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