Wayne Thiebaud’s Memory Mountains, a survey of 48 paintings and drawings going back to 1962, calls to mind an old song, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” partly because the mountains’ confectionary colors and stratified pigments recall those of the artist’s well known paintings of cakes and pies, but also because the cartoonish imagery of many of the paintings evoke, like the song, a fantastic never-never land—an ironic take on the American sublime. In paintings that have become increasingly ambitious and emotionally complex, Thiebaud takes on the iconic Western landscape, not by direct observation, but through the prism of imagination, casting himself as a teller of tall tales. These exaggeratedly steep canyons and dramatic vistas are obviously fictions—aren’t they?—yet ever since he began his career making drawings for Walt Disney, Thiebaud has taken fiction very seriously.
On ViewPaul Thiebaud Gallery
October 29 - December 21, 2013
“Memory” assumes multiple meanings in this retrospective, which seems motivated by the artist’s increased involvement with the mountain theme in recent years. Time is layered within the paintings themselves, like the exposed strata in “Yosemite Rock Ridge” (dated 1975-87 and reworked in 2011-13). while the images seem more and more the product of Thiebaud’s inner vision, of an accumulated experience that brings new psychological depth to his paintings.
True to his training in illustration, Thiebaud hews to the craft of painting, to techniques of illusion that ground him in the tools of his trade. In depicting objects he respects the boundaries of things and works to a high standard of finish. In “Farm Mountain” (2012-13) he takes us across flat, dramatically foreshortened fields, then up an abrupt mountain wall, over which clouds float in a limitless sky.
Attracted early on by Abstract Expressionism, Thiebaud accepted its material qualities but rejected the overall improvisation and immersion in process of friends like Richard Diebenkorn. Rather than explore the structure of the picture plane, Thiebaud tightened his drawing and enhanced the resonance of his densely applied colors. The folksy appeal of his subjects veils the complexity and emotional ambivalence of their sterile white backgrounds, which conflate modernist austerity and the lighting of a cheap diner.
For Thiebaud, landscape has always provoked a cartoonish exaggeration, from the vertiginous streets in his San Francisco cityscapes to the skewed horizons of the mountain ridges. There’s unabashed fantasy in the early “Palm Hill and Farm Cloud” (ca. 1968), with its perfectly rounded hilltop and cast shadow. This is not the dream world of Surrealism, tied to the psychological undertow of Abstract Expressionism that he seeks to avoid, but the commonplace fiction of popular culture, the world of his beaches and desserts. But the more recent paintings engage more challenging subjects, ranging in tone from pastoral serenity to apocalyptic foreboding. Their elevated viewpoint keeps us suspended at great distance from the tiny trees and farms; it harks back to the distant panoramas of Flemish painting, but also seems freshly minted by special effects. We’re forcibly reminded of our insignificance.
The mountain paintings have always been more open and painterly than the cityscapes, and their evolution in scale and density seems increasingly impelled by subconscious urgency. Thiebaud deploys all his resources to emphasize the drama of these landscapes—dizzying abysses, shifts in scale, flares of light, and eccentric vanishing points—and everywhere the sheer accumulation of pigment. The material threatens to take over and become nothing more than what it is, like a Western outcropping of art brut.
As mountains rise up in vast slabs, boundaries are threatened, requiring reinforcement with thick ridges of impasto, layered like the geological strata of the canyons, and the paintings’ extended reworking calls into question the possibility of finish. Thiebaud arouses the demons of Abstract Expressionism. The craftsman seems stretched to his limits by the scale of his subject and the feelings invested there, and Thiebaud pushes fiction to the breaking point. In the improbable “Peak” (2013), the application of delicate lights, shadows, and surface details don’t make its extreme angularity more plausible so much as call attention to their own artifice, and to the poignant inadequacy of artifice itself in the face of nature’s geological scale.
Wallace Stegner, another Western storyteller, used “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” as the title for a novel in which the relentless failures of its central character underline the dangerous fantasies inspired by the American West. Thiebaud’s paintings, like good novels, use telling details to draw us in, so as to obliquely convey some harsh intimations of aimlessness and loss, of the insignificance of human wishes. We’re reminded of the mythical character of the Western landscape, of Jackson Pollock and the American sublime. It’s the artifice of the paintings, their magical light and compression of space, that recall us to the everyday world and the human comforts of Thiebaud’s more familiar works.