East Bay

East Bay

Various Venues, East Bay

There have been some startling changes in the concept of watercolor painting in the past decade, and nowhere is it more evident than in the comprehensive 45th Annual National Exhibition of the California Watercolor Society, at the Kaiser Center Gallery, a joint project of the Oakland Art Museum and Kaiser Industries. An exhibition by the California Watercolor Society is always outstanding for the tremendous variety of approaches presented, and this one is no exception. Also outstanding is the high degree of professionalism shown by each and every exhibitor––a professionalism that in no way infers a cold and calculated technical excellence at the expense of content. Most of the paintings are figurative, but the non figurative artists also seem to have found an inspired vocabulary. Alexander Nepote received top honors among the eleven award winners. Nepote has long been known for his work with the mixed media of collage and transparent watercolor. He has worked for several years on one theme––a precariously balanced boulder on the edge of an abyss. With it he provokes an awareness of nature’s endless struggle for balance, and one can interpret it in terms of mineral mass or of allegorical reference to man’s fleeting tenure on earth. Generally, Nepote uses a rather cold palette––the greys and blacks, clear blues and whites of California’s High Sierras. But more recently he has taken to the use of warmer colors, and the reds which infuse the award winner in the 45th Annual relate it to the human experience.

At the Richmond Art Center are separate shows by Connie Fox and Norman Stiegelmeyer. Miss Fox is best known for her landscapes and figure drawings. Here, she has switched to flower paintings with landscape references, realized in bold, sweeping brush strokes and hues of strongly contrasted values. Her paintings are large in size and scale, and in them the ambivalence of the figure and natural phenomena sometimes recalls childhood’s troubled dreams. A dark cloud becomes a flower with a moon face, then suddenly becomes a people shape, yet always remains a dark cloud. And one is hurled back in time to when imagination, untempered by literary knowledge, began to shape man’s thoughts. Literary knowledge is evident in the artist’s handling of the elements of design, however. For all her appeal to our natural, unthinking responses, she knows exactly what she is doing and plays upon the senses as a skilled musician plays upon a harp.

Norman Stiegelmeyer’s approach to symbolism is more deliberate. He uses preconceived ideas in a most sophisticated manner, not ruling out the use of spontaneous developments. His shapes are mystical mutations of existing things often presented in humorous situations, while Miss Fox’s seem to evolve before the eyes of the beholder and, although seemingly benign, are never humorous. Stiegelmeyer has borrowed from many sources. He offers a digest of Miró, DuCasse, Hamilton and Wiley. But he is not without originality, and his use of color symbolism is both knowing and feeling. The flotsam and jetsam from a pool of universal mind-stuff is played against a light and luminous blue which divorces them from all special relationships yet retains the human aspect. Upon entering the show, one’s first thought is that it is much too large. The immediately following impression is that only a large show in a very large room could accommodate Stiegelmeyer’s concern with the infinitude of “forces, tensions, sufferings and illuminations” of today’s world.

The exhibition of recent paintings by Glenn Wessels at the Mills College Gallery (Oakland) is essentially the same one shown last fall at the University Gallery (Berkeley). Wessels is a well established artist who has developed a style synthesized from Hofmann, Kokoschka and Van Gogh which expresses his personal response to life in a somewhat lyrical way. The locale of his landscapes is more evident in the spirit expressed than in any special documentation, since he often fragments his subject to achieve a sense of fluctuating light.

The Candy Store Gallery, a few doors up the hill at the north end of the Folsom Shopping Center (Folsom), is a real sleeper. It is a converted house, which sells no candy, and the gallery is small. But it shows some of Central California’s better known contemporary artists in a cluttered but extraordinary exhibition. Among them are four exponents of the New Figurativism—Gary Pruner, Jack Ogden, Irving Marcus and Jerold Silva. All of them have shown widely in the state. Ogden’s portraits and figure painting of the same model are done in a manner that extends further the flickering light and hot dappled color for which he has become known. His works pulsate with life. Gary Pruner also explores light and color, but, while sharing some of Ogden’s principles, he relates more to Degas and Renoir. His people are vital and entirely believable, despite the staged environment. Silva does big watercolors, gossamer in quality, of interiors peopled by delicately painted women. The feeling is of great fragility—one loud cough and the whole scene would crumble and vanish. Irving Marcus, while not out of place with the others, is remarkably individual in his work. Like Ogden and Pruner, his light and colors are lively—which may be the influence of the Sacramento Valley’s brilliant sunshine. But his range of subject matter is more extensive, his palette more varied, and he is more capable of psychological penetration. He sees the figure less as a decoration and more as the primary reason for the picture’s existence.

Dennis Oppenheim is one of several Bay Area artists exploring unusual materials in order to break down the limitations of traditional painting techniques. His work was shown at the Richmond Art Center last month. He has had to increase the size of his show in moving it up to the spacious Belmonte Gallery (Sacramento). And the increase is mainly in the number of what he calls his “Funk Trucks”—little Toonerville-type cabs constructed of wood and upholstered with chintz in what decorators call the “Bronx Renaissance Period.” That is, over-stuffed. They are whimsical little creations, short, chubby and comfy, and, one feels, dependable despite their gay prints and polka dots. They could be for a grown up what a calico cat is to a youngster—a sort of security object. Oppenheim’s next move is to Stockton, where he will show with Harold Paris and Jim Melchert in an exhibition of polychromes.

Elizabeth M. Polley