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Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Grandeur of Open Spaces: Clifford Bailey, Painter

by Mark Hummel
Despite merciless insistence on conformity from his paintings, an insistence that often results in the sound of a knife on whetstone before slicing a work-in-progress away from its canvas frame when the painting won’t conform to his vision, Clifford Bailey does not meet the stereotypical images typically conjured when thinking of a temperamental artist or a transcendental philosopher.  In fact he contradicts a good deal of artistic stereotype.  Soft spoken and unassuming, he is a man gracious with his time and quick to share his craft.  He is warm and open.  The explosion of emotion that brings out knife and whetstone is rare and directed more at what he sees as failures of technique than imagination.  More prone to wear Carharts or blue jeans than berets or beads, his nature seems conscious of and largely derived from the years he and his wife spent in poverty, working on one ranch or another or as a framer in any number of art galleries, anything to put food on the table while leaving time to pursue his art.  It is Bailey’s intent to create an emotional experience in all those who view his work, capturing and creating moments of transcendence.  This element of his work emerges as a natural product of his personality.  Bailey speaks of painters as members of a priesthood.  To the laymen, the image is appropriate, for they may well share the spirit released by a painting, but the ritual that aids in its conception often seems foreign and mysterious, almost magical.  It is, after all, the painter’s objective to create an illusion, not quite like that of the magician—though Bailey’s own “bag of tricks” is large.  The work is more serious and ceremonious than magic, illusion created by the painter’s ability to infiltrate the viewer’s heart by “striking a sympathetic chord in their spirit.”
A painter who is nearly entirely self-taught, hard work and steady devotion to craft have helped Bailey produce in excess of seventy large new pieces a year.  The demand for his work by collectors has grown consistently over the last quarter century, and despite an ability to command higher fees, his work is often sought after by art lovers who defy easy stereotyping as well.  It is a source of pride for Bailey that his work is as often purchased with a local meat packing plant worker’s bonus check as it is with what another might spend to pay Country Club dues.  He hopes in both worlds that he is “feeding the spirit” of those who view and enjoy his work. His friend and fellow painter David Newton says, “Since Clifford can’t meet each person in person, he allows the painting to be an emissary, an ambassador representing him.”  And, like an apparition, he does feel present within his work always and perhaps this helps explain why work that takes on frequented vistas seem transformed under his brush.  The viewer’s role is less ethereal, if no less mystical, alone in a created landscape that is alive and as universal as it is individual.  Bailey paints from within moments of personal transcendence and offers viewers to replicate that emotional experience in the viewing.
Bailey would tell you, however, that he merely paints what he sees, and what he has seen for nearly thirty years has been the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies.  Bailey’s view of this region is pure, capturing the essence of its timeless progression and tapping the root of why so many settle there while forgiving the faults their numbers have brought.  His painting of the region is no more conscious than the view he cherishes each day, but in his depiction of that view he captures the vision many in the region wish to hold of the place and of their lives within it.  Bailey knows a painter cannot pluck a sympathetic chord unless it already exists.  Like the guitars he collects, the instrument does not have to be touched, for if tuned with precision, a note sounding in the room will trigger a momentary tremor along the corresponding string.  His work initiates similar tremors in the public that identifies with his images, touching parts of themselves they may not consciously acknowledge.  Bailey recognizes that people live hectic lives, and if his paintings can offer a place of momentary calm, a place of solace, then his contributions have been great and the effort of the painting rewarded.
Bailey tries to create such a peaceful state of mind in his public by capturing those moments present in nature where he feels transcendence for himself.  Bailey’s art rests in realism, but realism is not replication.  He is clearly aware that ours is not a perfect world.  This is where his work becomes deceptive, for he always creates believability but he transforms reality by allowing the painted scene an uncluttered, intuitive transmission to the viewer’s heart.  He would rather offer alternatives to the strip malls and clutter of the contemporary Front Range than condemnations, realism designed to distill natural elements to their essence.  One see this distillation process most noticeably when he paints in the “designed realism” style, simple paintings with crisp lines, blocks of color that are often offered in shades inexact to the natural colors they represent, and thousands of tiny paint speckles where the color progression creates the light and shadow in the work.  Here one can see the early influence of Eyvind Earle on his work, a painter he met when he was nineteen and riding his bicycle to Scottsdale art galleries.  Earle championed a style where the clarity and definition in line and color creates a tranquil but haunting mood, work familiar to the public through his participation in Disney animation with films like “Sleeping Beauty.”  Clearly influenced in some work by Earle’s style, the result for the viewer of Bailey’s work is to suspect that his designed realism has altered the world depicted for the better.  Where Earle’s work was fantastical, sometimes eerie, Bailey’s is more like fairytale or an idealized vision of place.

In all of his work the world is a rather idealistic one, one where the placements of a painting’s individual features come for reasons of balance and composition, not replication.  One result is the viewer’s ability to place Bailey’s work anywhere that conforms to their experience—for many, the Colorado Front Range, for others, whatever mountain range memory holds as idyllic and innocent, and for some, a dreamed African savannah.
A central reason for our ability to place a Bailey painting anywhere within our nostalgia or imagined dreams or optimistic desires is the near absence of humans and their structures in his work.  People do not exist within Bailey’s paintings, and their trappings only linger in the form of thin fence lines or the glow of city lights otherwise hidden beyond a ridge at night, yet we know intuitively that these are scenes where in reality people are plentiful.  This is not the savannah nor even a remote Western ranch or wilderness landscape.  They are places well-trod by humans, even if the closest kin visible is in the presence of cows, tools used to provide scale.  A tractor or telephone pole might accomplish the same goal, but not in the world Bailey depicts.  Two or three cows are less obtrusive, throw long, natural shadows, and offer something more, a peaceful, almost contemplative presence.  Bailey’s world is a world uncluttered.  Its simplicity deceives us, drawing our attention to the whole painting as a unified expression.  It is a world so ancient it offers human necessities without human pollution.  His friend, David Newton, jokes that one reason people find Bailey’s work so comforting is that, spear in hand, his landscapes provide everything needed for survival—an obtainable meat source, rich vegetation, water, and enough distance and beauty to fill the soul.  With the absence of humans, he allows viewers to place themselves within the painting, explorers alone with their minds and hearts, creating a simultaneous feeling of expanse and isolation.
He shows the world as it could be, not necessarily as it is.  He allows us to see our world in its best light, where fruit depicted in a still life is freshly washed by an invisible hand and mountains in a landscape offer tranquility and hope, even when in the throes of a violent, fiery storm.  The idealism, together with our sense of isolation within his landscapes, blend to form a sense of timelessness in his paintings, almost as if seeing life nearer its formation.  The muted backgrounds of a Bailey still life suggest that the table upon which the fruit awaits could as easily rest in an ancient Grecian palace, his landscapes, a storm that could momentarily extinguish the lights of a modern city or release the fury of forces in operation near the world’s cradle.  There is a virginal quality to his work—places unspoiled, pure and inviting for their proximity to the past or to a place existent only in our dreams.  Where other talented landscape artists can replicate beauty or alter familiar images with experimental color schemes or the addition of figures to typify a historical period, he transforms familiar landscapes into places of universal desire or seemingly shared human longing.
To journey within a Bailey painting is to travel within an expanded world, both in scope and spirit.  Such expansiveness is nearly always present in Bailey’s work.  Most often he offers panoramic views that sweep hundreds of square miles and seldom contain many foreground objects to detain the viewer’s vision.  Such scope increases the sense of grandeur.  Perhaps it is the scale that helps create the accompanying sense of transcendence of time, and possibly, of spirit.  Bailey acknowledges respect for the Buddhist belief that individuals can experience moments of enlightenment directly, that in fact, all experience such moments but not all recognize them.  It is his desire to create a parallel awareness.  Bailey does so not through the addition of objects but through application of light and color.  The terseness of his art aids in this occurrence, for it demands more imagination from the viewer and provides opportunity for them to supply their own narrative for the painting.  Bailey’s drive extends beyond capturing a place to conveying an emotion, and in so doing he creates a place, one that evokes a transcendence of the physical and offers a brief sojourn of the spirit.  In a world where fewer and fewer vistas remain unspoiled, one where our lifestyles fail to allow us more than the occasional view of a magical sunset or to get out of our car and see the expanse of sky, we increasingly need the vision Bailey offers, a reminder of a world worth regaining.
"Late Summer" by Clifford Bailey (oil) 28" 22"
"Sun Bathed" by Clifford Bailey (oil & acrylic) 8" x 10"

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