A Certain Slant Of Light
Painter David Ligare casts a neoclassical eye on the Central Coast in the golden hour.
Thursday, April 25, 2002
Painting: Day Is Done: In "Landscape with Sycamore Leaves" (above) and "Broad Landscape with A River," David Ligare conveys the stillness and perfection of the countryside in early evening.
Painting info: "Landscape with Sycamore Leaves," 1998, Collection of Stephen and Mary Mizroch
DavidLigare''s paintings are remarkable in the way that good literature is: the first reading gives form to a world of events, a second reading explores a metaphoric reality, a third touches the reader''s experience profoundly because the text''s subtleties have taken root. In Viewpoint: Pastures of Heaven, the exhibition at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, the artist''s various structural devices and manifested philosophy go to work on the viewer; contemplation of the work becomes a great unfolding as ideas and images emanate like concentric rings of water from a dropped pebble.
Ligare, a noted artist who lives on a sundrenched ridge near the high meadows John Steinbeck called the "pastures of heaven," imposes a system of structural and ideological concerns on the familiar landscape, imparting to it a profundity beyond reportage or documentary. The result is a compelling exhibition of painting.
As a young man in the 1960s, Ligare, a keen admirer of the writing of both Steinbeck and Robinson Jeffers, sought out the places the authors wrote about. He soon settled in the Monterey-Salinas area and has been using Central Coast land forms as the backdrop or primary vehicle for his evolving art ever since. Under his hand, with its neoclassic predilections, the wild and woolly back country has emerged tractable, serving as the basis for Ligare''s exploration of the "pastoral" concept.
The contemporary art world of the early 1970s offered a polyglot of voices, all speaking as if they were the next trend or "ism" begging for attention. Moreover, with the ascendance of Duchampian spinoffs-conceptual art, performance art, video art, and assemblage-throughout the decade, painting was repeatedly declared dead. With few exceptions (Susan Rothenburg, for example), that observation wasn''t far off. In this setting, Ligare made the critical choice to devote himself to the ideas and forms of classical Greece and Rome and those perpetuated by the 17th century artists Nicholas Poussin and Claude Lorrain.
As Ligare observes, "The Greek poet Theocritus and Roman poet Virgil invented and developed this idea of ''Arcadia,'' a mythic place where the landscape is neither wild nor tame. It''s a beautiful place, but there''s always the caveat that there is also something imperfect. The place is about wholeness, yet there is death; there is beauty, but it is fleeting."
In the pastoral landscapes of Poussin and Lorrain, one sees this dichotomy best rendered by the late afternoon light, in the golden hour when, as Ligare says, "we see the forms sculpted by the low light, and it''s the last moment of the beautiful day before the coming darkness of night."
Thus Ligare''s landscapes are infused with the same late afternoon light, giving every hill and outcropping, every oak and ridge, its physicality. These are "Wow" moments, as when, hiking, you reach top of the mountain, wipe your forehead and look back over the terrain in awe and gratitude.
Ligare points out a related use of the pastoral idea by Steinbeck in Pastures of Heaven, The Red Pony, and To A God Unknown. In these works of literature, the setting is ruggedly beautiful, if not bucolic, yet death and sadness are always present. "They get up the Laureles Grade and look down to the Pastures of Heaven and each character says, ''Oh, if I could live here my life would be perfect,''" Ligare points out. "But we''ve already read these accounts of troubled lives. Steinbeck is saying it''s perfect, but..."
Steinbeck populated his literary world with marginal characters: Danny and his friends in Tortilla Flat; Mack and the boys in Cannery Row; George and Lenny in Of Mice and Men; the Joads in Grapes of Wrath. Ligare considers these character types descendants of Virgil''s Arcadia, populated as it was with shepherds.
"The shepherd has always been a symbol of the outsider," he says. "Like the pastoral itself, he embodies the idea of medio, a median place, a median person. He''s in the middle, not of the wilderness or the city, but connected to both. Steinbeck''s characters interact with the normal world but are generally not part of it."
Ligare sometimes populates his paintings with classical characters who act out a classical theme, or he will include grazing cows or horses. In the latter works, the arcadian shepherd''s presence is implied, though he''s offstage.
Ligare focuses on three areas during his creative process: structure, surface and content. Employing various compositional devices, he deconstructs the observable terrain and reorganizes it so that the landscape elements and the spaces between them and the edges of the rectangular picture plane are balanced and proportional.
"I''m also very concerned about the surface, that it be true to nature. I want it to be about the natural forms, not the brush work, so I give that a lot of attention," says Ligare.
Then, there is content. "Classicism is about balance," says Ligare. "In my paintings, you have this natural event, a moment in time that is actually chaotic and wild. But then I try to order it to reveal the natural balance that is there."
In "Broad Landscape with a River," a dramatic interplay of cloud forms, hills and bluffs, elongated shadows and evening light, Ligare illustrates his philosophy. The 80 x 116-inch tour de force has an internal structure of horizontals and diagonals that convert the vagaries of nature into a picture of sublime grandeur. While the stillness of the late hour is apparent, with long shadows caressing hills and a lazy river meandering through its time-worn path, the massive clouds convey a restless, even dangerous, energy. What appears benign is fraught with potential danger, as if the dark clouds of the upper left usher in not only the violence of a storm but also the mantle of night, a time of predatory activity by the unseen.
In other paintings, particularly "Landscape with Red Pony," Ligare''s "golden hour" of flawed perfection can be seen. Like a setting from Steinbeck, these individual landscapes allude to greater ideas rooted in myth and the human condition, both idealized and actual, and can be appreciated as evocations of a world beyond the cradle of the Central Coast.
Viewpoint: The Pastures of Heaven opens April 27 at the National Steinbeck Center, One Main, Salinas, and continues through August 4.