Betty Bailey
Organized by Zully Adler with Cushion Works

Opening reception: Saturday, November 5, 5-7pm
November 5–December 17, 2022

Plein Air Painters at Nude Beach, 2006, 18 x 24″
Colored pencil on paper

A long-time resident of Port Costa, California, the artist and documentarian Betty Bailey turned to drawing late in life, recording the routines, pleasures, and delusions of aging in suburbia.

Bailey took up colored pencils in the late 1980s and early 1990s, following the birth of her grandchildren. Her portraits and social scenes hover between irony and earnestness, lampooning the ennui of white geriatrics while steeping senior lives in melodrama, sexuality, and the uncanny. The artist often positions herself as a flawed protagonist, lamenting the small injuries sustained after tripping on her pajamas or attacking casino slot machines with an intensity that troubles her neighbors.

Proximity to death is treated with particular ambivalence. While some works mark the pervasive terror of cancer, others welcome ghosts to a ballroom dance. Most of all, Bailey revels in an inscrutability forged by suburban detachment. Her combinations of Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Al Gore, and Paul Ryan defy political perspective and critical interpretation. Stilted depictions of dialogue between hosts on The View make one wonder whether she liked or disliked the program. 

Together with her husband, the ceramicist Clayton Bailey, Bailey moved from Wisconsin to the East Bay in the 1960s at the suggestion of sculptor Robert Arneson. There they embedded with a burgeoning cast of artists teaching at UC Davis and living in Benicia, Crockett, Vallejo, and other towns at the mouth of the San Joaquin Delta. Through the 1970s, she made quiet contributions to group exhibitions at the legendary Candy Store in Folsom, California, where her deliberately naïve and comical experiments in clay and plywood resonated with the Funk artists, Nut artists, and Chicago Imagists promoted by the gallery. In her life and work, specific attention was given to the provincialism of Port Costa, an unincorporated town in which mayoral campaigns were often undertaken by dogs and small children. Port Costa’s talent shows became one of her most enduring subjects, and treated such that sincerity and satire are not so easily distinguished. 

Betty Bailey died in 2019, leaving many questions about her creative motivations unanswered. One can only speculate as to whether she wanted it this way.

In addition to original works on paper and ceramics by Betty Bailey, the exhibition includes Bailey-inspired “furniture” by BRAINS, a high-concept, low-output San Francisco goods-house motivated by the elusive spirit of ingenious depravity.