David Ligare’s paintings come from the world where beauty was invented.

The Past is Now: Natural Setting: Ligare in his home studio

To his many admirers in the art world, David Ligare is the definitive Monterey County painter. wCurators and dealers represent him as a painter deeply rooted in this place—which is true, but also ironic, because for the most part he is painting another world entirely.

Ligare, who has lived here since 1968, has his work hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, in the San Jose Museum of Art, and in galleries from LA to London and beyond. Many of his paintings contain uncanny depictions of terrain that is instantly familiar to any local—a piece of Big Sur shoreline with cypresses topping rock outcroppings, an azure sea stretching to the horizon; or the gold-green hills of Steinbeck’s “Pastures of Heaven,” the narrow Salinas River winding away. But in most of his work, this place is merely the stage on which an ancient drama is played.

A Ligare canvas will look like a majestic landscape, a man drinking from a spring under a live oak, or a still life lit by coastal afternoon sun. Yet these paintings are not mere landscapes or still lifes. Ligare is a painter of narratives and allegories. His work is an intellectual pursuit as much as an artistic one. Each is an essay, a metaphor, or an ancient  story. Each is woven with strands of history, theory and myth.

To some local Ligare fans familiar with his landscapes (which were shown in a spectacular exhibit at the Steinbeck Center three years ago) or his earlier “thrown drapery” seascapes (there’s a stunning example on permanent display in the Monterey Convention Center), the theoretical aspect of his work may be invisible. Bucking contemporary art trends, his paintings are all figurative, rather than abstract, and they are without exception pretty. As a result, to his apparent chagrin, Ligare’s work is admired by art-lovers who find much contemporary painting too challenging.

“I think that’s sweet and everything, but those are not the people I’m painting for,” he says. “I like the idea of playing the tougher game, working with the trends of contemporary culture. Or I should say working against them.”

Ligare calls himself a classicist. His paintings play by rules that, as he sees it, were first established in the 4th century BC by the Greek sculptor Polykleitos, and later codified in the 17th century by the French painter Poussin. He works from these roots toward a rigorous ideal: “the integration of diversity, reverence for nature, heightened perceptual and technical abilities, the radical pursuit of knowledge and the embracing of the full implications of humanist beauty.”

He is concerned with depicting the balance of opposing forces; with symmetry, and with democracy, which had its inception in the historic period he loves.

As his artistic ideals come from ancient times, so do his subjects, and it is his project to make the classic stories tell contemporary tales.

“Hercules Protecting the Balance between Pleasure and Virtue,” painted in 1993, depicts a tale told in the 4th centrury BC by Xenophon, in which the mythic hero is tempted by two women. The myth, as Ligare tells it, is intended “to remind the viewer to contemplate the excessive luxury, self-indulgence or unproductive ease of his or her own life in contrast to the more difficult course of responsible action and achievement.”

In the painting, Ligare has updated the story to incorporate his own more contemporary ethics. To wit: In a prior illustration of Xenophon’s story, painted by Albrecht Durer in the 15th century, Hercules clearly chooses the woman representing Virtue. In Ligare’s version, the hero “must incorporate them both. He must protect the balance.”

“Self-Portrait: In Homage to Petrarch,” shows the artist as the 14th century Italian poet and scholar called “the father of humanism.” Petrarch, whose radical pursuit of knowledge was deeply at odds with his times, was singularly responsible for recovering the lost works of ancient Greece and Rome. On its surface, Ligare’s painting is an imaginative self-portrait set in a gorgeous landscape. To the artist, it’s clearly a manifesto in paint.

Even the land itself is suffused with meaning for Ligare. His living room window, in Coral de Tierra high above Salinas, looks out from the foothills of Mount Toro south to Big Sur and north across the bay to Santa Cruz. In this landscape, Ligare sees into the past.  

His luminous “Broad Landscape with a River,” a view from a spot near his home, contains, for him, “an unobstructed view into the farthest distance, which might on a metaphorical level be equated with the perspective of history.”

This is his home—the place where he is most comfortable. “I like the idea of time-traveling,” he tells me, sitting on his couch, a cup of tea in his hand. “I like the idea of moving outside of our world.”

~ ~ ~

In the living room of his modest, beautiful mountaintop home, David Ligare is surrounded by books. Philosophy, history, art criticism—Ligare could clearly have been happy as a professional intellectual, and he looks the part, in a fleece vest, scruffy goatee and round, green-rimmed glasses.

He is eloquent and provocative when talking about art and ideas; when talking about his own life, he seems less engaged.

David Ligare was 5 when he moved with his family to Los Angeles from Oak Park, Illinois. He took his formal art training at the Art Center College of Design, now in Pasadena. He dropped out, got drafted, spent two years working as an illustrator in the army, and started showing in New York. He moved to Big Sur when he was 23, and spent the next 10 years painting watercolors outdoors, in the plein air style, as well as landscapes in oil.

Somewhere in there, no doubt inspired by the conceptual artists of the day, he began experimenting. He made abstract sand-drawings that he then turned into prints or large drawings on canvas. He painted drapery in piles. He took a piece of white drapery to the beach, flung it into the air, photographed it against the sea, and painted the resulting image. That last experiment led to a breakthrough.

He saw in his thrown-drapery paintings something he defined as classical.

“They reminded me of pieces of marble sculpture that had had their heads and arms hacked off, and the only thing remaining was the drapery,” he recalls. He gave the paintings the names of Greek islands. The ensuing show brought him a measure of critical acclaim, and also launched him on the path he remains on today.

“I had been dealing with classical themes indirectly, and I decided that it would be a more interesting project to deal with classicism directly, to produce more narrative paintings dealing with classical culture.”

This impetus was further fueled by an article in an art magazine.

Telling me the story, he bolts out of the living room and returns with an old copy of ArtForum, the preeminent magazine of visual arts. He opens to an article by the painter and critic Sidney Tillim, an illustrated essay about the writer’s own experiments with what he calls “narrative art.”

The magazine itself—which today is a fat, glossy, expensive-looking testament to the successful marriage of art and commerce—was in 1978 nothing but a fancy pamphlet. In it, amid photographs of abstract sculptures, installations, and expressionistic multimedia assemblages, Tillim’s simple paintings look almost ironic. Ligare points to one, “Count Zinzendorf Spared by the Indians,” an apparently historical scene from the American West.

“It knocked my eyes out,” Ligare says. That painting, and Tillim’s accompanying text, turned Ligare on to narrative art.

It is clear, listening to Ligare, that he loved the fact that this stuff was so completely out of fashion.

“I knew that it was against the art law to be doing anything classical,” he says. “And I thought: that’s great. It’s wrong, but it’s interestingly wrong.

“Making art, for me, is a matter of solving problems. Problems that are too-recently solved are not as interesting as the ones that have been dormant for a while. Making paintings based in Greco-Roman mythology—that’s not one of the art-making problems that is being solved much right now.”

Last week, I showed a friend, who happens to be a university-trained artist, a catalogue from a Ligare show. Together we looked at the image of a landscape reproduced inside. “It almost looks like a painting,” she said, and caught herself, “I mean, I know it’s a painting, but…”

She was exactly right.

Some people will say, looking at a realist work, that it looks like a photograph. Ligare’s, though impeccably rendered, do not look like photographs. But it might be said that a Ligare looks like a photograph that looks like a painting.

His landscapes, for instance, are not anything that can be photographed. They are not a fantasyland—but they are idealized. They are not real, and they are not drawn from the artist’s imagination—they are created through a rigorous process of invention.

Once upon a time, the style we call classical was quite modern, and was a revolutionary break from what came before. The classical Greek era, for example, followed the Byzantine—a period when paintings were so highly stylized that a work from that time might pass as a mid-period Picasso.  

Classicism, for Ligare, is marked by what he calls “naturalism.” You and I might say that a classical artwork looks “real.” For Ligare, a classical artwork reveals the order embedded in real-life things.

Tacked on a wall in his studio, Ligare has a photograph of “The Spearbearer” by the Greek scuptor Polykleitos. The statue, among the first works of classical realism, looks like a man, in much the same way that a Ligare painting can look like Toro Park. But if the piece appears almost organic, the process that created it was decidedly not.

According to legend, “The Spearbearer” was accompanied by a treatise laying out the artist’s complex theory of symmetry (the text is lost to history). The statue began, it seems, as an idea.

“It’s practically a work of conceptual art,” Ligare says.

Poussin, another touchstone, went one step further—concocting a theory of beauty and proportion based on ancient Greek modes, and devising a set of geometric formulas. A Poussin canvas begins as a set of pencil lines breaking the rectangle into a kind of grid. And so does a Ligare.

“I try and create a structure that has some significance to the subject itself,” he explains. So the “Hercules” painting, with its three figures, involved “a geometric formula around the number three.”

And does he believe that the shapes and numbers themselves also have some emotional significance?

“I’ll leave that to the expressionists,” he says wryly.

~ ~ ~

One wall of Ligare’s studio is made of windows. On another wall hangs a five-by-six-foot portrait in profile. Three easels hold still lifes in various stages of completion. He explains that he likes to have more than one painting going at a time, so he can work on one while paint dries on another. “There isn’t much down time,” he says.

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Ligare makes lists, on a yellow legal pad, in all-caps lettering. He shows me one. Item three: “Look up Psalm 115.” It’s the one that warns against making graven images.

Ligare may see connections between the original “iconoclasts,” who traveled Christendom smashing “icons” in churches, and critics—ancient and contemporary—who disdain figurative art.

Plato, he points out, scorned what he called “mimesis”—artworks that tried to imitate nature.

“Plato would not have liked realism,” Ligare says, almost sadly. “But that is something Plato was just wrong about.”

In many quarters, the specifics of Ligare’s project are scorned (likely for different reasons). “Heightened technical abilities,”  “reverence for nature” (or anything), even “beauty”—this stuff is often considered passé or worse.

But the bigger part of his idea, that painting can be informed by philosophy, is still the purvue of “high art.” Perhaps that is why Ligare has trouble allying himself with the “Neo-Classical” artists who condemn postmodernism (and even modernism) in favor of a conservative return to the old values.

Ligare seems to identify more with modernist-realists like Chuck Close or Gerhardt Richter, rather than the New Classicists, with whom he is often exhibited.

“There’s plenty of room in the world for abstraction, conceptual art, minimalism, and classicism,” he says. “It isn’t an either-or thing.”

Still, he can be easily coaxed into defending his oeuvre against “people who have a lot invested in contemporary art, and what they think it should be.”

As with much in Ligare’s world, there is paradox here. He rails (gently) against “art schools cranking out 10th- and 20th-generation neo-Duchampian artists—which is not really true to what Duchamp was about.” And somehow, his classicism is (once again) revolutionary.

~ ~ ~

There is one group of artists with whom Ligare feels comfortable—a group of Italians who call themselves “Anachroniste.” And so he happily admits to being an anachronism (literally: “out of the times”).

But deeper still, in his work, are the values that are at once old and progressive.

“Still Life With Grape Juice and Sandwiches (Xenia)” is a typical Ligare still life—the first in a series that follows a similar pattern—set on something that could be an altar, posed against the sea and sky.

Looking at it, knowing already that it was an allegorical painting, I saw something the artist might not have intended. I missed the bologna between the slices and saw only a stack of bread. The pitcher threw me, but still the grape juice  might have been wine. I saw an image of communion.

~ ~ ~

That may be an interesting reading of a simple still life, but the artist’s version of the painting’s meaning is considerably more intriguing.

Ligare volunteers at Dorothy’s Kitchen—a Catholic mission that feeds and houses homeless people in Salinas. The two elements of the still life—grape juice and bologna sandwiches—were for a time a staple served for lunch to the destitute guests at Dorothy’s Kitchen.

Ligare explains that the first still-life paintings were what the Greeks called “Xenia,” meaning a food gift for a stranger. And so, for Ligare, his painting is an homage to the notion of hospitality. That idea has its own layers of meaning, but the painting has another, and that has to do with the art-world staple: the still life itself. It is a personal statement, and a political or moral one, and an art-historial one. It is a painting out to communicate meaning on many levels—even if the average viewer who encounters it at the De Young doesn’t parse all of this from what lies within the painting’s frame.

Michel Foucault—the notorious postmodern theorist—addresses this problem in an essay that Ligare the classicist would probably find fascinating. Looking at a painting called “Las Meninas,” by the 17th century master Diego Velasquez, Foucault sees an artist’s view of the world, as well as a commentary on what it means to look at the world.

The ostensible subject of Velasquez’s painting are the little ladies of the court, as well as their royal parents. But the painter has included himself in the frame, in a mirror on a back wall. To Foucault, this painting is therefore “about” painting—it is also “about” seeing and knowing. Was that Velasquez’s intention? It doesn’t matter.

Clearly, there is overlap between my interpretation of the “Sandwiches” painting and Ligare’s intention. Perhaps it’s accidental that his comment on Catholic charity became for me a sacrament. The painting contains more than beauty, and more meanings than he put there.

And whether or not all of his fans find in Ligare’s work the worlds he has put inside them, those worlds are there.

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