Crazy form, emotional function
Artist Clayton Bailey takes on robots, demons and bodily fluids to improve life through sculpture
Even Clayton Bailey’s directions are eclectic.
“Look for gargoyles on a redwood fence and an aluminum rocket ship in the front yard.”
That’s the artist’s last line of direction to his Port Costa lair and just the first glimpse into his peculiar artistic vision.
Clayton Bailey’s World of Wonders, featuring metal and ceramic sculptures from the California artist, kicks the slats out at the Crocker Art Museum from October 22 to January 15.
Past the gargoyles and rocket—the first thing visitors encounter on the road to the house where Bailey’s lived for more than 40 years—is a phantasmagorical indoor and outdoor playground peopled with the remnants of his imagination. There are exploded pots and pseudo-functional scientific equipment, brains in dishes and face jugs, a handmade howitzer that blasts tennis balls 100 yards and robots exhibiting generously sized mummeries. Also on display: a fiendish scientist’s laboratory and vials of an elixir called Unobtainium, an Airstream trailer, racks of ray guns and Big Foot’s double-jointed penis bone that allows the organ to “thrust in all directions” to facilitate “athletic mating practices.”
More than 200 of Bailey’s unique, outlandish and engaging metallic and sculpted creations—from colossal to teensy—have been lifted from their Bay Area home and relocated to Sacramento where they are organized to offer a roadmap to Bailey’s 50-year career which started in the late 1950s when the only art class available at the University of Wisconsin was pottery.
Since then, Bailey has stretched the boundaries of ceramics the same way the torn and gouged abstractions of Peter Voulkos were the Rubicon when Bailey began.
Diana Daniels, associate curator at the Crocker, says Bailey’s vision is unparalleled.
“Clayton makes serious art about how art doesn’t have to be serious,” Daniels says.
Bailey, 72, remains wry and spry. He’s part mischievous malcontent, merry prankster and mordant moralist.
The evolution of his work, Bailey says with a laugh, is what the show at the Crocker should illuminate. His take on his career is simply that ideas bubble up from inside his mind, and he merely invites them out to play.
Sometimes once. Sometimes a few times. Sometimes over and over again.
Bailey taught ceramics at California State University, East Bay in Hayward for 28 years, and is a self-described “nut artist.”
No, not nuts as in the staple of squirrels. Nuts as in the kind etched in the head.
Although there is evidence in his works of inspirations that draw on Bailey’s Wisconsin youth—Mad magazine, practical jokes and Popular Science—Bailey’s pushed well past those parameters into performance art and, like Pygmalion, transforming scrap metal into art.
Consider the contents of a table in one of the less cluttered corners of Bailey’s workshop: There’s a box of miniature skulls, the topmost one a Cyclops. There are stainless steel ornithological critters of varying size, with lengthy necks, garlic-press beaks, legs or arms of fork and bodies of pots and, nearby, a smaller version of those fence-sitting gargoyles which looks to be the progeny of a ferocious coupling between a Looney Tunes Tasmanian Devil and a Chinese temple guardian dog.
“Every once in a while I do a batch of monsters,” Bailey says. “So that was the idea: Guardian demons for your fence. Keep away the evil spirits.”
Another recurring theme is also well represented on the tabletop—and in the exhibition: Improving life through ceramics.
“What kind of things could you invent that would improve people’s life?” Bailey asks. “How about a cup that would guarantee that you would always have a faithful husband?”
On the front of these miniature spittoons it reads, “To Keep a Faithful Man.”
Bailey flips the cup over to reveal the written answer:
“Deposit Fresh Semen Daily.”
“Guaranteed to work,” Bailey says.
There are also tiles of “toxic waste” made from the dust and clay leavings from his studio’s floor.
Rummaging through odds and ends, Bailey holds up a piece called “Urn for the Unconceived.”
“People are very concerned about the unborn but you never hear them talk about the unconceived,” he explains. “So I thought there should be a receptacle for the unconceived.”
Besides urns and spittoons, there are also bottles of Unobtainium—USP grade Unobtainium, no less. USP stands for United States Pharmacopeia; its inclusion on the bottle is a vestige from Bailey’s youth when he thought his future was in pharmacy.
Bailey says Unobtainium first caught his eye in a magazine ad for tennis shoes.
“I thought it would be a really cool thing to have.”
Another take on that life-improving theme was a 1987 commission for Sacramento Regional Light Rail led a creation of bricks depicting a $16 bill for the 16th Street Station—yet another example of Bailey’s recurring motifs.
“You think you’re lucky and you’ve found money, and you bend over and get exercise,” he says. “That’s improving yourself with ceramics.”
There’s also “Fight Satan,” a 2-foot-high statue that looks like a coin-operated arcade fortune-telling machine. Scenes of burning Bibles—supposedly occurring in the charred pizza-oven chest cavity of the red-skulled demon—impart a “psychic inoculation’ in the viewer that prevents further possession on temptation by Satan.
Bailey brought several of his creations to life at the World of Wonders Kaolithic Museum he operated in Port Costa during the 1970s as well as various other locales around the country.
Bailey once created an alter ego—the Nobel-nominated Dr. George Gladstone who “discovered” kaolism, the conversion of mud into stone “through the digital implantation of the fingers of an artist”—and during the ’70s and early ’80s, unearthed various kaolist critters including a sea serpent and Big Foot, the latter whose skull and s skeleton now grace the Crocker.
Over the years, Gladstone lectured periodically on kaolism and the Age of Bone, putting one over on more than one crowd including a very gullible group at a museum in Redding. Bailey’s wife and high-school sweetheart, Betty, captured many of the pranks and performances on video. Several of her pencil and watercolor drawings are also included in the exhibition.
To lure visitors into the now shuttered museum, Bailey created a robot costume for the barker—usually played by himself. He’s since retired the outfit but, several years before Star Wars, the costume’s leftover spare parts spawned generations of shiny descendants including “Marilyn Monrobot,” which was once removed from the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley after female students complained about her sizable cylindrical breasts.
The melding of idea and function is sometimes difficult, Bailey says.
“It’s a creative challenge to figure out how to make this and craft it in a way that’s plausible,” Bailey says.
“And then it’s fun, too. It’s something to play with when you get done. And it looks good,” he says. “So what the heck? I don’t know what else you could expect your artwork to do.”