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Through July 27, 2003 at OCMA, Newport Beach, Orange County

by Nancy Kay Turner

"I ...believe in an art that layers time upon time, an art that simply reaffirms our presence and the depth of our existence on this earth..."
Nathan Oliveira

Nathan Oliveira, versatile painter and printmaker, is inextricably linked with the Bay Area figuratives, who energized and reinvented figurative painting in the late 1950's and early sixties, when this was a particularly risky act. Oliveira, Richard Diebenkorn, David Park and Elmer Bischoff fused the now well known principles of Abstract Expressionism--big, gestural strokes; thick, luscious paint applied with abandon; daring color combinations--with their interest in the human form. These Bay Area artists were gutsy painters who bucked the non-objective strictures of the existing New York art canon. So reviled was the figure to New York art critics that some accused the Bay Area figuratives of a "failure of nerve" in their desire to return to the figure. Even in those heady and controversial days, though Oliveira often was invited to exhibit with the other Bay Area painters, his work was substantially different in tone, if not technique, from the rest of the pack. Like Giacometti, Oliveira kept returning to the idea of a single, isolated, frontal figure, and his take on the teme was particularly evocative.

In Spring Nude (1962, oil on canvas, 96” x 76”), Oliveira's iconic solitary standing figure emerges whole yet anonymous, from chaos and nothingness. She is a powerful, alluring figure whose mysterious origins parallel creation itself. Seemingly more spiritual than his fellow Bay Area friends, Oliveira's figures grow more tantalizing and enigmatic with sequential repetition. While Park, Diebenkorn and Bischoff all incorporate the figure in a neutral setting, engaged in ordinary activities such as biking, sitting or walking, Oliveira’s single figures, with legs seemingly glued shut and arms frozen at their sides, appear unearthly, unfinished, and still evolving. More metaphorical than actual, these solitary figures seem like archetypical humans whose vagueness mirrors the mystery of life itself.

“Standing Man with Hands
in Belt,” 1960, o/c, 82 x 62 1/8".

“Italian Sentinel,” 1959,
o/c, 60 5/8 x 48”.

"Nude with Crossed Legs,"
1960, watercolor.

This comprehensive exhibit includes Oliveira’s wonderfully fresh and often edgy watercolors of nude models, which evoke Egon Shiele’s erotic and troubling paintings. Reclining Nude with Crossed Legs, (1960, watercolor and ink, 11 3&Mac218;4” x 17 1&Mac218;4”) replete with puddles of paint, is small, intimate and striking, while Hawaiian Watercolor #16, (1971, watercolor and pencil, 14’’ x 11”) is notable for the dense blue- black background which cradles the model and hides her face. In 1989 Oliveira’s sepia watercolors of his young Korean model “Imi” become ever more spare, intimate and abstract and are among his best, filled with subtle surprises that delight the eye.

But it was in the monotype process, which allowed him to be spontaneous, that Oliveira found his medium. The process allowed him to work through an idea quickly and he especially appreciated the “remnant or ghost of the idea” that remained after the impression was made. He felt that because he could then “enter back into that image that was still malleable,“ he could more easily generate different versions than he could with lithography. In 1973, he did a series of “Art About Art” monotypes loosely based on works by Goya and Rembrandt. Oliveira’s work is a sensual treat, while simultaneously stimulating poetic and narrative associations which involve the viewer in completing the art by supplying the story. This richly rewarding exhibit is art soul food at a time when we need it most.