Revisiting The Witty Work Of 1970s Bay Area Nut Artists

LOS FELIZ, Calif. — There are two narratives that describe the founding of Nut Art. The more famous one is recounted in an unpublished manuscript called Basic Art, authored by prolific mail artist, art writer, and self-appointed “Nut chroniclerDavid Zack. According to Zack, painters Roy De Forest and Maija Peeples-Bright and ceramists Clayton Bailey and Dave Gilhooly were sitting around a table in De Forest’s home when Zack proclaimed the need for a new art movement. The others assented but could not agree on how to christen the enterprise. The anecdote ends thus: “Roy’s mother Oma came up with a round tray full of open brown bottles of Swan Lager, plus some vegetarian bacon crisps. Everyone said Nut Art at once. Nut Art was born.”

Bailey’s wife Betty described for me a different Nut genesis. Her version begins with De Forest and painter Harold Schlotzhauer visiting the Baileys’ home in Crockett, California, during the late 1960s. The conversation drifted to the artists’ frustrations with being erroneously labeled Funk, a term that crash-landed on the American art scene after the premier of Peter Selz’s infamous 1967 Funk show. At the time, Journalists and art critics were especially fond of describing any difficult-to-categorize artist as “funky,” particularly if that artist resided in the Bay Area. A solution occurred to Bailey, De Forest, and Schlotzhauer: They could start a new art movement and, perhaps, reinvent the way others saw and communicated about their art. A moment of inspiration struck when each artist decided to take on an alter ego as a way to refocus their energies. Bailey, for instance, dubbed himself Dr. Gladstone. De Forest chose Doggie Dinsmour.

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Nut Art at the Parker Gallery is basically a sequel to the Hayward show. Sam Parker, the gallery’s owner, told me, “I grew up in the Bay Area, aware of all these artists that are rarely shown today. It seems like the right time to introduce them to a new generation.” The multifaceted show brings together 10 of the greatest hits from the 1972 Hayward exhibition alongside several contemporaneous works and 10 pieces made within the last decade.

Despite its breadth, the show manages to come off as a unified thought. Each of the gallery’s separate spaces vibrate with common purpose, of big bangs and primordial ooze. The power of Nut is the same power held by the storyteller who understands when a well-timed pause will drive a point home. It’s the mask that imbues an actor with the agency of a demigod to create, as De Forest describes, a phantasmagoric micro-world.

That last quality permeates Gilhooly’s “Classic Frog Pot” (1971), which is one of the original Hayward Nut show pieces. It’s a typical example of Gilhooly’s commitment to his self-made mythology, in which frogs enact the habits of people. Gilhooly brought full-measure resolve to the effort (as with Bailey/Dr. Gladstone’s World of Wonders) that transcends his art’s witty exterior. Therein lies an honesty and earnestness that undermines the typical critical assessment that blandly describe Nut as humorous exercises of faux-naïveté.

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