Monday, January 7, 2008
Wayne Thiebaud Exhibition Notes
On Saturday I took a field trip down to Laguna Beach to see the Wayne Thiebaud retrospective at the Laguna Art Museum. I’ve not had the opportunity to see much of Thiebaud’s work in person, so I was looking forward to the excursion.
The show included a wide range of work from different periods of the artist’s career, including some early student work, such as still lifes and figure studies, and some recent beach scenes. The latter I did not quite know how to process. They are quite different from the familiar Thiebaud image: instead of carefully detailed, candy colored rows of products, I saw clumps of indistinct, gestural figures getting lost in an active, scumbly background. The landscapes’ odd round bulges and thick glops of paint, as well as the figures’ squiggliness, made me think these pictures had been painted from some long-held, half-remembered memory.
And what of those paintings I was expecting and hoping to see? The pastries and cakes and deli cases and off-kilter cityscapes? Thiebaud’s use of crazy colors in seemingly-inappropriate places was even better in person that I was expecting. Multi-hued outlines around all the forms, shifting from magenta to red-orange to cyan; bright blue-green-violet shadows, so bright they looked straight from the tube. The shadow cast by a casserole dish in a painting of roast chickens from the 1960’s was a vivid cerulean, one of the brightest, purest colors in the whole picture. Such a shadow ought to jump up off the picture plane and wave around like a flag, not lie still and so simply and concretely define the surface the casserole dish is sitting on. Yet it does, somehow….
Another rule-breaking technique I noticed, one that surprised me because it gets lost in reproduction, is the activeness of the paint in Thiebaud’s backgrounds. It swirls around and laps up against the outlines of the “subject” forms of the paintings; I noticed this especially in Food Bowls from 2005 (a grayed-out violet shadow caresses serving spoons) and a small painting of three sunbathers from the 60’s (the white “sand” piles up around the figures in little brush-stroke dunes). These backgrounds look as if they were applied last in the creation of these paintings; their thick paint is sculptural in its application. These thick, active backgrounds ought to overwhelm the paintings’ foregrounds and flatten out the picture plane. Yet, again, somehow they don’t.
(After some careful looking, that activeness in his early pictures ties the newer, from-memory beach scenes into the arch of his life’s work for me.)
These techniques I named—the outlining, the pretty shadows, the sculptural backgrounds—aren’t they all big no-no’s that I learned in Beginning Painting? But screw the rules, Thiebaud makes them work beautifully. Hurrah for exuberant painting.