Nathan Oliviera and Exploration of Whiteness

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Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach is hosting a retrospective of Nathan Oliveira, one of the Bay Area's acclaimed artists. His art generated a lot of attention when, in the late 1950s, his paintings were included in the much-talked-about MOMA exhibition of figurative art, "New Images Of Man". Along with Giacometti, de Kooning and Francis Bacon, there were works by Bay Area figurative painters Elmer Bischoff, David Park and Nathan Oliveira.

Italian More than forty years later, his brooding early paintings still generate some heat. His later paintings from the 1960's and 70's show the artist expanding his artistic vocabulary by opening up and brightening his dark palette; successfully venturing into sculpture and printmaking. But one basic thing never changed: whether small print or gigantic canvas, there is always a single standing figure against a bravura explosion of color. It's very 60's, very San Francisco, very idealistic - a figure of a prophet announcing (depending on your sensibilities) the end of civilization or simply the end of a Steven Spielberg movie. I doubt that this retrospective will expand the audience for Nathan Oliveira's work. Though his art remains impressive, it somehow gives the impression that the artist never could, or maybe never wanted, to break with the once revolutionary but, these days, rather conservative and provincial aesthetic of the Bay Area art scene.

Spending an hour at this exhibition last Saturday afternoon, I felt rather unsettled by finding myself literally the only visitor to the galleries. There are plans to move the museum out of its current obscure location to a high-profile spot next to the Orange County Center for the Performing Arts. Hopefully it will happen soon as it is so sad to observe a museum becoming irrelevant to its community.

Standing Fifteen minutes away at Laguna Art Museum, there is an ambitious exhibition exploring whiteness as a cultural, social and racial construction. The art, primarily produced within the last decade by mostly California artists, varies from good to indifferent with a few flashes of excellence. As with other thematic exhibitions exploring different kinds of identity - ethnic, religious, gender - this one raises a number of interesting questions. Unfortunately, a problem common to such exhibitions is illustrating interesting thoughts with artworks that are not always that interesting. In some cases, even the good artworks seem forced into coexistence while having, in aesthetic terms, next to nothing in common. It's as if a group of strangers were invited to a party and expected to have something meaningful to say to each other, when all they have in common is being blonde and having the same middle initial.

The catalogue accompanying the exhibition has four interesting essays about American culture, but it lacks discussion and much needed insights about the actual artworks included in the exhibition. It's as if the art and the exhibition are an excuse for the book rather than an end in themselves.

It's only fair to add that two of the least interesting paintings, in visual terms, proved to be, for me, the most thought-provoking. One large monochromatic canvas by Byron Kim is called "White" another "Black", but in actuality "White" is composed of muddy pinkish rectangles representing variations of skin tone of so-called 'white' people. At the same time, his "Black" painting consists of light and dark rectangles of muddy brown color representing variations of skin tone of so-called 'black' people. It really makes you think. If only the visual power of the art would match the power of the ideas in this ambitious exhibition.

Nathan Oliveira Retrospective
April 12 - July 27, 2003
Orange County Museum of Art
850 San Clemente Drive
Newport Beach, CA 92660
(949) 759-1122

"Whiteness, A Wayward Construction"
March 23 - July 6, 2003
Laguna Art Museum
307 Cliff Drive
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
(949) 494-8971