by David M. Roth
It’s often been intimated that Raimonds Staprans, the 91-year-old Latvia-born painter of light-drenched landscapes and still lifes, works with the spirit of Wayne Thiebaud perched on his shoulder. To that I’d add the names Richard Diebenkorn, Paul Wonner, Roland Peterson, Greg Kondos and a host of other California representational painters who came to the fore at or around the same time (1954) Staprans graduated with an MFA degree from UC Berkeley.
Calling an artist derivative can be damning. But no such fate has befallen Staprans. For Full Spectrum, a career retrospective organized by Scott A. Shields, the Crocker Art Museum’s chief curator, some of America’s most esteemed observers — critics Nancy Princenthal, David Pagel, John Yau; Smithsonian art historian Paul J. Karlstrom; and Broad curator Ed Schad – have weighed in positively, their ebullient remarks sandwiched between the color plates of a lavish exhibition catalog. None shy away from stating the obvious; but they also point to idiosyncrasies that they say set Staprans apart from artists who’ve employed similar strains of reductive realism (e.g. Edward Hopper, David Hockney, Robert Bechtle) and others (like Diebenkorn, Wonner, Theopholus Brown and David Park) who defined themselves by applying the pigment-heavy techniques of Abstract Expressionism to figuration.
Granted, this is a slender peg on which to hang an exhibition, but it mostly holds. Shields sets the tone by evocatively describing the milieu of post-WWII California and, in particular, San Francisco. He traces its allure from the Gold Rush to the middle of the last century when it became lodged in popular consciousness in the 1960s as locus of the counterculture and later, the source of high-tech innovation. It was there, after fleeing war-torn Europe with his family, that the artist settled permanently. The contrast between the darkness of his early years and what he encountered in the Bay Area in the 1950s was profound.
“The light is so white and so aggressively energizing that one almost automatically gropes for his sunglasses,” he told Yau. “And so it goes for eight months each year – nothing but blue skies and blinding light. It is impossible to ignore.” His career –bolstered since 2001 by Hackett-Mill Gallery in San Francisco — stands as a 60-year paean to that singular, geographically rooted epiphany.
In 1970 he moved into a studio home atop Potrero Hill and has lived there ever since. “From this aerie,” writes Shields, “with its sweeping views of the city and bay, the transience of light and atmosphere, the ceaseless persistence of traffic and the never-ended growth and development of the city itself are on constant view, allowing Staprans to take it all in with a comforting sense of remove.”
The exhibition opens with five paintings the artist made in the decade after he graduated UC Berkeley, when he was still, by his own account, wrestling with Abstract Expressionism. These thick, crusty still lifes, indebted to Nicholas de Staël, are well executed, but they’re indistinguishable from much else produced during that period. They stand in a hallway outside the entrance to the show, a prelude of sorts. Enter the exhibition proper and things shift radically – to flattened-out expositions of brash, bold color and intersecting geometric volumes, both in the landscapes and still lifes. The later, on account of mysterious horizon lines, appear
to have been created outdoors in natural light. But that is not the case. Unlike Thiebaud and Kondos, friends who, for fun, painted together en plein air, Staprans works from memory and imagination and from discarded pieces of his own paintings and reproductions of other artists’ works, scraps of which he reassembles to model future paintings. As he told Princenthal: “they are constructed from the ground up in absolutely abstract terms…I never paint from nature.” The results are seen most strongly in the landscapes.
While they contain familiar elements – sky, light, horizon lines, water, buildings, boats, docks and so forth – the finished compositions, which he often spends years revising, look more like seamless mash-ups of disparate elements, assembled through intuitive reckoning. The paintings, Yau wrote, “are disturbed by the unrelenting pressure of spatiality, in combination with disquieting color combinations. Nothing sits comfortably.” The scenes feel skewed, like tectonic wedges held in place by unseen forces. The only familiar element is the intense coastal light. Yet even that has a preternatural quality. It shines from everywhere all at once, and therefore, no place in particular, making the shadows cast sometimes appear arbitrary and disorienting; the effect naked and bereft. The California of Staprans' imagination is a land deracinated, freshly painted and fog-free, its gauzy Diebenkornian spatial ambiguities distilled into hard-edged geometric slabs dotted with generic buildings and bounded by wave-less waters, small craft and farmland.
One such slab of a painting that stands in memory is Evening Docks (2005). It shows a long expanse of pale blue paint running almost out to the horizon. Anyone familiar with the Bay Area will immediately recognize this as the Berkeley Marina as it existed decades ago, when its pier jutted 3.5 miles into the bay. What distinguishes the painting is how Staprans made it look more like an airstrip than the pedestrian walkway it once was. In so doing he transforms what was formerly an open invitation into a premonition of nature invaded, but without showing the invaders. That absence pervades his oeuvre. In The White River (2007), which appears only in the exhibition catalog, he plays with perspective by compressing distance. The painting portends to show two houses on opposite sides of a river, but the illusion proffered is that of a building at the edge of wall looking down at its counterpart. A shaft of light bisecting the expanse indicates the sun overhead. But if we accept that, then there’s no plausible explanation for the strong shadows that fall to the left of the buildings; they point a single light source outside the frame at the right. Another example of the disorientations produced by Staprans’ iterative method is Barn with the Red Door (2012). It pictures what looks to be the side of a building collapsed before a barn, inset into the ground as if it were swimming pool. These sorts of architectural non sequiturs repeat throughout the exhibition.
There are also quirks of emphasis, like the moored boats that are nearly cropped out of the frame in Afternoon 5 (1986). In this, the focus rests almost entirely on the posts to which they’re tied. Funny thing is, if you removed them and simply left the ground on which they’re planted, it could easily serve as farmland in a Thiebaud painting, except that in Thiebaud’s handling it would be verdant and juicy, not scrubbed to bare essences. Staprans seems to have mopped the deck of his oeuvre with cleansing solvent, while at the same time injecting into it retina-tingling colors: blood reds, blaring oranges and pumpkin yellows in the still lifes; monochromatic blocks of white, blue, green and yellow in the land- and seascapes, the latter rendered as flat expanses of solid color reminiscent of Kondos’ paintings of the Central Valley. “The chromatic energy,” writes Princenthal of one such painting, The Long Shadow in the Afternoon (2009), “is so potent it almost feels dangerous.”
In the still lifes, Staprans delineates the edges of objects almost exactly as Thiebaud did with his iconic cakes and pies of the early 1960s, prime examples of which you can see in the Crocker’s permanent collection. In many such works, Staprans includes horizon lines, and into them he places off-yellow or whitish diamond shapes to represent the sun, sometimes more than once in a single painting. Repeated across multiple works this device takes on symbolist overtones, which is something you won’t find in Thiebaud’s serial repetitions which are, quite obviously, the models for Staprans’ paintings of cans, jars, tables, chairs, stools, vases, glasses and oranges and cherries. Each of these exhibits a “personality.” Which is to say, we view them anthropomorphically as representing degrees of intimacy or alienation, depending on how they’re arrayed in relation to each other. A good example is Death Valley Chairs (1986), a picture Shields compares to Thiebaud’s Two Seated Figures (1965) for how it portrays psychological distance.
The contradictions in Staprans’ approach don’t easily reconcile. Karlstrom applies the terms abstract realism and Minimalism even though there’s little in Staprans’ work that’s truly abstract. Realism? Not if you take seriously the spatial and perspectival liberties Staprans enacts. And Minimalism? That, too, seems a stretch. Painterly realism, Shields’ designation, seems closer to the mark. But the truth is, Staprans skirts all these so-called categories without ever fully inhabiting them. Therein lies the work’s essential frisson.
In the end, one might reasonably wonder how it is that Staprans can be situated both inside the tradition of Bay Area representational painting and outside of it. The answer, we are told, has to do with Staprans’ self-imposed isolation from other artists and his isolation in general. The latter assertion is buttressed by acquaintances who say the artist, a celebrated playwright in his native country, maintains closer ties to Latvia than to the U.S. All of which raises the question: Can great art arise in a vacuum? It typically doesn’t. But we also know that one needn’t rub elbows with other artists to absorb and transform their influence. SFMOMA’s recent pairing of Matisse and Diebenkorn proved that.
Might the same be true of Staprans? Full Spectrum, while not conclusive, marshals evidence to suggest it. However, the only way we’ll know for sure if the Crocker or some other institution takes up the challenge by mounting a show where we can see side-by-side comparisons between Staprans and his immediate peers. Such an excerise, in fact, has already been partially conducted: At a slide lecture that coincided with the opening of this show, Los Angeles Times critic David Pagel made direct comparisons between Staprans and all of the artists mentioned above, zooming in on how each handled similar subjects. He made a case, which even in the absence of the paintings under discussion, seemed convincing. The Crocker, next month, will do something similar by mounting a show of 100 Diebenkorn paintings taken from the early part of the artist's career, 1942-1955.
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“Full Spectrum: Paintings by Raimonds Staprans” @ Crocker Art Museum through October 8, 2017.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.