by Kathy Zimmerer
"Two Tables with Fruit and
"Flowers, Fruit and Furniture,"
(Art Institute of Southern California [AISC], Orange County) Paul Wonner, whose early light-filled paintings of interiors were among the most visually poetic works among the Bay Area Figurative painters, here exhibits his amazing flower still lifes. Inspired by the rich verisimilitude and intense colors used by the Dutch painters, and the glowing surfaces of Velasquez, Wonner has always favored representation over abstraction. His particular brand of magic realism infuses his flower still lifes with luminous grace.
Early interiors were loosely rendered in saturated hues, and always contained an intriguing placement of abstract planes. Gradually, Wonner focused on still lifes and imagery tightened up. The jewel-like palette and a tilted picture plane that he settled on continues to appear in his current work.
The sparkling Dutch Still Life with Piece of Pie and Piece of Cheese (1977) implies a direct visual link to the luscious Dutch still life tradition of the seventeenth century. The table top is tilted at such an exaggerated angle that the white surface becomes a dramatically lit stage for carefully developed flowers, food, and various other scattered objects. Each pristine object stands in its own self-contained space, yet the placement of all is so skilled as to create a flowing and cohesive composition.
In several works Wonner introduces richly executed landscape backgrounds. Garden Table with Chocolate Cake (1989) and Two Tables with Fruit and Cheese (1992) both portray an oddly frozen world lit by brilliant sunlight. The former painting leads the eye back into space due to cunning placement of the table tops. A profuse welter of objects exists on all layers of this still life, from the ice blue toy car on the grass to a brilliant red tulip on the table. Wonner drops the red checkered tablecloth over the edge of the table, and through this device skillfully melds the two spatial layers into a unified whole.
In Wonner's earlier flower still lifes, such as Dutch Still Life. . ., the objects are placed in a rhythmic dance of pattern and light. In Flowers, Two Tables and a Stool (1994) Wonner retains the elegant choreography, with the paint handling providing a dense visual metaphor for beauty. Two buckets of flowers crowd the table, their floral abundance perfectly balanced by the placement of a small, glowing purple stool. The angular table tops jostle for space like the flowers, yet the imagery and spatial interaction are smoothly interwoven and complement each other. Like a Dutch still life, the whole composition speaks of the overwhelming richness and variety of life.
These are crystalline clear still lifes, each object taking on an eerie importance. Perhaps Wonner's paintings serve a contemporary version of the vanitas theme, where each object symbolizes the impermanence of the temporal world. While existing in a peculiar limbo of time and space, each flower blooms at its fullest and most radiant, making these paintings an eloquent testimony to the passing illusion of life and beauty.