Los Angeles

Nathan Oliveira

U.C.L.A. Art Galleries

This exhibition covers the past five years of Oliveira’s work and includes over 60 pictures. The main body of work, paintings from 1957 through 1960, reinforces the artist’s image of himself as a kind of western hemisphere Giacometti. His well-known generalized personages suffer repetitiously under the weight of a violently opaque space.

The greatest weakness in these pictures is exactly the attitude that has given them their current note. Oliveira’s approach to painting has involved a duality that is immediately antagonistic, confronting the same dilemma that faces most of the figure painters whose work has evolved out of abstract expressionism: the attempt, at the same time, to be a figure painter and an action painter. One technique must necessarily place limits upon the other. Thus, if in a picture the human image is able to dominate, the remaining space becomes excessive—gesture for the sake of a look. On the other hand, when gesture wins, the figure becomes simply an obstruction to the emotive flow of the painting. At best, the effect of these pictures, apparently so immediate in their expressionism, is filtered through a necessary prior involvement in the literature of European existentialism and the now academic mystique of “The New American Painting.”

The most fascinating and encouraging aspect of the show involves the paintings started sometime during 1961 and continuing through to the present. Most of these paintings were made during Oliveira’s stay at the University of Illinois in Urbana and after. They manifest an entirely new attitude for the painter, a transition away from his static concern. In some of the pictures, such as “Nude Negress 1961,” a strange kind of Fauve attitude emerges. The space is charged with brilliant, fluorescing violets and greens and the paint itself, becoming thinner, creates an hallucinatory, almost Bonnard-like look. Paintings that follow this, such as “Nude in Environment I” and ”Nude in Environment II,” continue to explore this hallucinatory quality. “Sphinx” and “Conversation” look like Ben Shahn under LSD, but “Young Girl,” apparently the most recent painting in the show, seems to have synthesized the various elements of Oliveira’s work into a grand statement involving hallucination and romantic perception. The young girl stands with body slightly forward, but previously she was leaning back, and the space between the two positions remains charged with the heat of her passage—again, the hallucinatory quality of time and motion itself as a visible entity—as is her shadow running downward from her leg in a brilliant sweep. In this painting, gesture becomes freer and seems to stem from the subject rather than in opposition to it. In general, the look of this recent work reflects an emotional reversal of the artist’s prior concern with existential illustration. There is a freedom here that allows the artist to act within the picture with a dash that far transcends the previous restrictions of his more conventional action painting techniques.

Don Factor