Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on November 6, 2008 in Resource Library with permission of the author and Hackett-Freedman Gallery, 250 Sutter St. 4th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94108. The essay was excerpted from the illustrated catalogue titled "David Park: Works on Paper 1930-1960." Images accompanying the text in the catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you are interested in obtaining a copy of the catalogue, please contact Hackett-Freedman Gallery at either this email or web address:
David Park's Works on Paper
by Lance Esplund
Quickness in art isn't everything. It is important that an artist be good -- not that he be fast. An artist's speed, like his choice of medium or scale, is a matter of temperament -- not talent. Vermeer spent years working on a single small painting. Giacometti, whose pictures look as if they had been hurriedly wrestled into being, composed his forms slowly, steadily, deliberately. Albert Marquet, on the other hand, worked rapidly and could distill with a few calligraphic marks the whole of a human being. Marquet gives us a figure's gait, mood, and demeanor; the strength of the wind against that figure's face -- even, perhaps, his misgivings about the journey. In this show of David Park's works on paper, I am reminded of the tempo and calligraphy of Marquet. But Park's figures, made of bold strokes and swathes of color, do not offer us specific or individual persons: they offer us universal beings -- emotions personified.
Born in Boston, David Park (1911 - 1960) moved to California when he was 17. There, he trained at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles and at the University of California, Berkeley. As a child he fell in love with music, especially jazz, and he discovered a life-long penchant for playing the piano. In California, during the 1930s, he made Social Realist murals and tapestries for the WPA, through which European modernism made its impact on the painter. In 1936 Park took a job teaching at the Winsor School in Brookline, Massachusetts, but in 1941 he returned to Berkeley. In California, he made a name for himself, painting, exhibiting, and teaching at the California School of Fine Arts and at UC Berkeley. Park painted non-objectively for a brief period from 1946 to 1949, when he had an artistic breakthrough or, perhaps, an artistic breakdown: turning his back on non-objective painting, Park destroyed his abstractions at the Berkeley City dump, after which he returned to figuration. The fruitful result was the birth of the now famous group of artists known as the San Francisco Bay Area Figurative Painters -- a group that includes Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn.
Park was an extremely talented draftsman with a calligraphic hand. But to think of a particular painter as someone with a calligraphic hand, is usually to imagine an artist whose brushstrokes suggest brevity, exactitude, and fluidity of touch. These are all attributes of Park's best pictures (the figurative work he made from 1950 to 1960), as well as of the best work of the Abstract Expressionists -- artists who were Park's contemporaries and who looked to Asian calligraphy for inspiration. But to practice what is at the heart of Asian calligraphy -- its poetic structure and spirit -- is to do more than to imitate the look, fluidity, or frontal pressure of calligraphic characters. It is to create pictures, as Park did, which meld object and action into living signs.
Chinese characters, metaphorically speaking, are living structures. For a character to be successful, however, it must evoke the life -- the energy and presence -- of the interaction it represents. Ezra Pound, in his book The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, reminds us that there is no such thing in nature as a pure noun or a pure verb: "The eye sees noun and verb as one: things in motion, motion in things, and so the Chinese conception tends to represent them." Chinese calligraphic characters are shorthand action-pictures: "dawn" is a rising sun in tension against the horizon line; "sees" is an eye with running legs; "to speak" is a mouth with two words and a flame coming out of it. I do not know if Park was familiar with Chinese calligraphy, but I believe he would have appreciated the comparison. His quickly drawn human features come together to form faces and bodies that are pared-down living pictures, as well as signs.
In many of Park's pictures, as in Chinese calligraphy, forms feel like they are standing in for more than one thing. A girl's ponytail is a burst of lightning. Childlike mouths, eyes, and bellybuttons suggest wounds, flames, and voids. In Park's famous nearly life-size painting from 1955, Standing Male Nude, the tub drain, like a single startled eye, appears to stare up at the nude, as well as out at the viewer. In the ink drawing Untitled (Male Head) (c. 1950s), an image of a shirtless man looking upward, Park transforms the figure into a landscape: his shoulder blurs into a distant mountain range; his neck suggests a tree trunk; and his lips form hilly peaks. A V-shaped mark, indicating the divot at the base of the figure's throat, drifts through his chest like a bird, over the horizon line of his collarbone. Park imbues every mark with a dreamlike quality. And the evocation of the landscape within this figure suggests that the man has become the very subject of his own daydream.
Nothing in Park is immaterial. He instills domestic acts and commonplace objects with ritualistic significance, as in the gouache Untitled (Ball Players) (1960). Here, the three nude figures appear to be dancing on fire; and the ball, made of light, is a floating orb. This is not just another day at the beach. Keeping arms raised and the ball in motion is an act with sacred consequence.
This show is the most wide-ranging review of Park's works on paper to be mounted in decades. It presents nearly the full range of his approach to the figure, as well as that of his ability to work quickly in various media -- charcoal, ink, and gouache, even felt-tip marker, which he took up in 1960, when he was too ill to work with oils. It also gives us a chance to see how he responded to working directly from the model, in works such a, a male portrait from the 1930s; ink drawings made during the 1950s group drawing sessions with Diebenkorn and Bischoff; and in the gorgeous seated nude, Figure in a Chair (1960), on loan from SFMOMA.
According to Paul Mills, Park "could digest the forms of a face, a chair, a car without so much as disturbing the flow of conversation and use them in a painting a week or so later." Park's ink drawings of nude models, a number of which are included in this show, reflect his ability to mine the figure for treasure to be used later in his oils and gouaches, which he invented from out of his head. Some of the works made from life, such as the gouache Nude with Striped Rug (c.1956), in which her weighty abdomen shifts like a ship's ballast, are beautiful and satisfying. Others are harbingers of what is to come. Working directly from life allowed Park to distill within his memory a naturalism that he could bend and distort-reinvent at will. And it is in his invented figures in his oils and gouaches -- the works that are more Park-like, if you will -- that he gets at his most humanly raw poetry.
Among Park's few favorite themes were musicians, rowers, bathers, couples, and the trapeze-in which, as in a small, faded felt-tip marker drawing in this show, the two trapezists must contort their bodies into swing, rubber, and arrow, and to dart into the abyss like lightning, to stretch themselves like taffy, and to reach toward each other with an existential leap of faith. But even when Park's figures are engaged in commonplace tasks -- rowing, sewing, bathing, or conversing -- they take on archetypal roles. Park is it narrative artist and a storyteller, even when his narratives are unclear.
In two of this show's portrait busts, Head of a Man and Profile (both 1960), the figures' striped shirts and exaggerated colors transform the men, as if out of Picasso or Watteau, from regular people into harlequins or clowns. The long strokes of bright Fauvist color, the figures' shorthand, childlike features -- the heads that look like jugs and the ears that look like handles; the bejeweled eyes, painted lips, and mouths -- suggest totemic forms or carriers for pure feelings, such as embarrassment, fear, apathy, empathy, befuddlement, or joy. In some figures, like fiery rashes, those emotions burn to the surface; in others, it is as if their skins had been cut open and peeled back -- as if feelings had flayed the figures from the inside out.
It is from Matisse that Park takes his cues in terms of pure color -- color's ability to strike first with feeling. Despite the emotional charge of Park's pictures, however, his figures never play on our emotions. Park is too smart a painter to fall prey to manipulation. His hand is honest, abrupt, and frank -- sometimes even brutal -- but it is lighthearted and tender. He is not afraid to treat his figures' hands as if they were heavy anvils or clumsy tools whose purposes were unknown to them. He is not afraid, when depicting couples, to give a rectangle an argumentative or homoerotic charge -- felt in the movement of water, or in a glance, or in what is not being said. And he is able to retain a simplicity and intimacy reminiscent of 17th-century Dutch genre painting. In Woman with Baby (1960) -- a picture that plays with the complications of a Madonna and Child -- the figures have halos; and the child, with the knowingness of an adult, appears to be blessing the woman. She cannot contain him. He is walking on air.
The range of human nature is expressed in Park's figures -- some of whom, though in constant motion, appear to be hovering, lost in the in-between. And no matter how strange or distorted some of his figures appear, it is in their human qualities -- the paradoxes that Park so movingly explores in this revelatory show of works on paper -- that we are reminded of ourselves.
©2008 Lance Esplund
About the Catalogue
The above essay is excerpted from David Park: Works
on Paper 1930-1960 (2008). 48 pages. Published on the occasion of the
exhibition David Park: Works on Paper 1930-1960, held May 8 - June
28, 2008 at Hackett-Freedman Gallery, San Francisco, CA. (right:
photo of front cover of catalogue, courtesy of Hackett-Freedman Gallery)
About the Author
Lance Esplund is chief art critic of The New York Sun.
Resource Library editor's note:
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Raven Munsell, Hackett-Freedman Gallery, for help concerning permission for reprinting the above text.
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