Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Who Doesn’t Like Penises: A Few Questions for Tod Bailey

Virginia Billeaud Anderson

 Tod Bailey, Redneck Disco, 2014, Oil on Canvas, 48x60

To promote its exhibition of oil paintings by Tod Bailey, the Ted Casablanca Gallery in Palm Springs “borrowed” a few sentences I wrote in a 2008 newspaper article about Bailey. I had to laugh at that tiny bit of plagiarism, my words were hardly brilliant. In fact I was flattered because the gallery owner Ted Casablanca is famous in the entertainment industry. This fellow had a long reign as a bitchy gossip columnist.

Casablanca apparently has vision and guts. After viewing digital images of Bailey’s art, he flew to Houston, spent time in Bailey’s studio and offered him a show, financial and personal skin in the game that marks a committed gallerist. Casablanca seems to share my opinion that the under-known Bailey is an exceptionally exciting painter, so with his Palm Springs exhibition approaching on May 14, I decided to ask Bailey a few questions:

Virginia Billeaud Anderson: As long as we’ve been acquainted, you’ve been reluctant to talk too much about your art because you believe the paintings should speak for themselves, and think it’s stupid to explain them or create a narrative.

Tod Bailey: Yea, it’s bullshit to talk about it. It’s just canvas and paint. I go through the process and this is what comes out, a painting, and I feel uncomfortable saying all this stuff. But collectors want to hear something, and some people believe the artist’s words and titles can be a helpful tool, I don’t know.

VBA: Regardless, when I wrote about you in 2008 you stated decisively that emotional distress, pain and fear, inspired the art. You painted haunting representations of the human figure in fragmented forms to symbolize emotional discomfort and the psychically fractured self. The artworks expressed violence and cannibalism, your Medusa painting is an example.

TB: Back then I had crazy shit stuck in my head, psychologically I was a mess, angry about my past and fearful of rejection. I composed figures in fighting and wrestling poses, with contorted faces, real fear and confusion in their faces. But I don’t paint that way anymore. I’ve been evolving and kicked away detrimental and distracting things, and am allowing good things to come into my life, and feel happy now, and I want that to come out in the paintings. I’m not fighting myself anymore and I believe I can see this in the paintings. Those frightening things I used to paint, admittedly that was my true nature then, but all that warped perspective was imagined in my head, it wasn’t reality. I think different now, and the paintings represent that.

VBA: You think different now because you’ve discontinued assailing your brain with excessive amounts of cocaine and booze, bound to exacerbate emotional fragility.

Tod Bailey, A New Primavera, 2014, Oil on Canvas, 99x72

TB: Precisely. I was very sick. But I’ve been straight for two years.

VBA: Although just as vibrant and expressive as paintings from the past, the new works feel infinitely more controlled, more focused, your marks appear purposeful, brushstrokes more definitive. The colors remain intensely sensual.

TB: I am very interested in colors and line and in learning what the paint does. Does the painting feel true? I want to make art that is beautiful. You know that Rumi quote - let the beauty we love be what we do.

VBA: Even deep into dissipation my friend, you can’t deny you painted a few lovely paintings.

TB: Sure, there were some beautiful ones. I actually made many beautiful paintings, very drunk, but the window of open mindedness began to close, and I became stuck in misery, when the booze quit working cocaine helped, then that quit working, so what worked in the beginning stopped working and I spiraled, was even unable to read and retain, which was a horror. I can take from the past what worked and what didn’t, same with the paintings. I’m connecting back to myself, and I focus on what succeeds. Picasso said, “I do not seek. I find.”

VBA: Tod, the way I see it your art was shifting into more lyrical expression back in 2012 when Jay Wehnert organized your exhibition “Some Assembly Required” at Nau-Haus Art. You showed seductively colored quasi abstract gestural and angular figures that were memorable. Say something about your up-coming show in Palm Springs.

TB: My exhibition “Happiness is Freedom…and a Nice Penis” opens on May 14 at Ted Casablanca Gallery in Palm Springs, and runs through June 6. I’ll be showing 19 oil paintings all made within the last two years, between 2014 and 2016.

VBA: I’m wondering how good ole boy comportment will be received in glitzy Palm Springs, where you’ll predictably use hick words like “Howdy.” Will they will find you peculiar?

TB: Sure, but I hope they’re attracted to the art. I’m looking forward to connecting to people I don’t yet know, and hope they connect to me, and to my art.

VBA: Will Joe Bob attend your show?

TB: Joe Bob can’t make it to Palm Springs, but my dad is my biggest fan.

Tod Bailey, Portrait of Munch and I in His Garden, 2015, Oil on Canvas, 68x60

VBA: We’ve discussed through the years the fact that you see your university art training as formative. 

TB: I do. For my journalism degree, I studied art and art history as electives. My art history professor was a Yugoslavian woman named Ivana Spalatin, a brilliant artist gypsy who was personal friends with Robert Bly and Joseph Campbell, and she introduced me to their writings, follow your bliss, and that impacted me significantly, to realize I could be part of this beautiful thing called art by which man expresses life, that life and art are integrally linked, and that art forms a continuum, all the eras artistically expressed humanity, and she was so passionate about relating this. It inspired me to study comparative religions and mythology and literature, and to understand bigger truths, which was important for someone brought up in a tiny religious town. It made me want to become an artist. Ivana was living with a graduate student named Conrad Richter, a brilliant painter, a brilliant guy, a real crazy fucker, and he taught me how to stretch canvas, and I learned so much watching him paint. Trenton Doyle Hancock told me he learned a great deal from Conrad.

VBA: Some might be surprised by the extent of your literary knowledge. Compared to most, I consider you an expert on Faulkner.

TB: Yea, I read Faulkner and need to re-read it, that guy was whiskey crazy out of his mind, and still made those beautiful sentences, was so aware of the humanity, the suffering, he wrote of frightening things, poverty, abuse, slavery, people not necessarily enslaved but enslaved in their own families or things they were unable to escape. His characters could not escape their history, their story.

VBA: Describe your painting process. Do you approach the canvas with a set idea, and preliminarily lay it out? Do you first make a sketch? Or is it all spontaneous, like stream of consciousness?

TB: It’s like stream of consciousness, what is called automatism, Pollock did it, Gorky too, he spoke about it. For me it’s more authentic to paint that way. I make plenty sketches though, but not as preparatory works for the paintings.

VBA: Your paintings usually include sexual references, which the gallery obliquely phased, “filled with sexual energies.” Collectors enjoy trying to recognize the painted figures’ dismembered penises and vaginas.

TB: They are often rendered in abstracted form, or hidden, like the triangles for the females, and circles for boobs and butts, but it’s not a big deal, all the painters did it, sexual expression is a primary subject throughout the history of art, so yea there are lots of dicks. Only a few basic shapes exist in the world, a circle, square, cylinder, and triangle, and artists have used them to express human essence since the Neolithic. Sex is how we got here, who doesn’t like penises?

Tod Bailey, Orgy On The Inside, Oil on Canvas, 2015-2016, 48x48

VBA: Comment on art historical influences. It’s easy to detect genuflection to Picasso, de Kooning, even Matisse. You admire Guston.

TB: Of course I use what I admire in other painters, it’s impossible not to.

VBA: Your time with Dick Wray must have been influential.

TB: Oh, I have Wade Wilson to thank for the introduction. Dick was ill, but painting, so we agreed I would assist him part time in his studio. He told me, “don’t be passive as an artist or as a human being, make a lively and living response to life.”

VBA: I’ve noticed that the mythology of Dick Wray bad-assery persists even though the guy was sober for years before his death. One night after he died, I was in a gallery which showed some of his art and overheard an artist nostalgically proclaim, “I saw Wray pissing outside!” He was a prolific painter and known as a dedicated teacher, many would be surprised to hear Wray bought one of your paintings because he never did that.

Tod Bailey, Self Portrait as Harpy, 2014, Oil on Canvas, 72x48

TB: I learned so much from him, loved his work, and his passion for painting. When Dick was dying, he could only paint a short time and then had to rest, and one day he went to lie down and said, “you probably think I’m a pathetic old fuck,” and I said, “No sir, I think you are remarkable.”

VBA: A dying man struggling to paint brings to mind that lovely quote by Professor Elsen, “art remains like an act of love, a potent gesture of life, a fist clenched against death.” Contemporary Arts Museum’s Bill Arning also bought one of your paintings.

TB: Yep, Bill owns “Butthole Petting Zoo.”

VBA: An absurdly Rimbaudian title. I got so excited months back when “Papercity” published that article featuring the interior of David Lackey’s home. Lackey has exquisite taste in art and antiques, such discernment, and there grouped over his fireplace was one of your paintings. You need to thank “Papercity’s” editor Catherine Anspon for that sweet bit of exposure.

TB: That was nice.

VBA: Readers might be interested in hearing about your day job, assisting part time with art maintenance and restoration, for galleries, and collectors. Houston’s fat cats have important sculptures on their “grounds” which require cleaning and maintaining.

TB: I help clean.

VBA: You’re probably reluctant to discuss rich clients’ private art collections. Child, I’m remembering the fun we had in Italy. Don and I were on one of our trips, and you were living there, moved there to follow a woman, and we hooked up and toured hill towns, and Donnie treated us to that elegant meal near Siena, with the prosciutto and melon and figs and those yummy wines.

TB: And this dumbass was too drunk to taste anything.

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