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[whitespace] 'Reclining Nude With Crossed Legs'
Body At Rest: Nathan Oliveira's early work is represented by 'Reclining Nude With Crossed Legs,' a watercolor and ink work from 1960.

Figuring

Throughout his current retrospective at the San Jose Museum of Art, Nathan Oliveira evokes the power of the figure

By Julia Chiapella

FALLING NEATLY from the arms of the collective known as the Bay Area Figurative Artists, Nathan Oliveira confirms once and for all his ties to German Expressionism. Not that there aren't inflections of Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff and the like, but Oliveira's work forges a singular course between those 1950s Bay Area artists and the more melancholic ire of Max Beckman, Edvard Munch and sculptor Alberto Giacometti.

In his current retrospective as the San Jose Museum of Art, Oliveira, a professor emeritus of Stanford, where he taught painting for 30 years, displays simple subjects: the figure, the horse's head, a wing. But like a great poet who never resorts to storytelling, there is always something intangible yet highly evocative hovering beneath the surface.

And while we are treated to Oliveira's earlier works in this show and convinced of the connection to the Expressionists working in Germany in the early part of the 20th century, there is more to Oliveira than his idiosyncratic roots. The figure continues to be Oliveira's prime topic, as seen in his recent "Stelaes" (or monoliths)--triumphant homages to spirit and form.

His earlier work is a tribute to the dusky, gloomy ambience that, as did the Beats and jazz, fueled the undercurrent of 1950s America. While Diebenkorn and Bischoff marked their paintings with sensual, fluid strokes, Oliveira gouged and scraped his paintings. Where they depicted sunlit fields and bright colors, Oliveira often chose to orient his figures in somber colors with heavy impasto. They are solitary creatures that abide resolutely in an uncertain world so vast it is better left to the imagination.

But this is a retrospective, after all, and besides being a seminal oil painter, Oliveira is also a sculptor and a printmaker. Part of this exhibition, created by independent curator Peter Selz, who first assembled Oliveira's work in a 1959 exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art, is devoted to these media.

In his sculptures and prints, Oliveira displays an interest in a kind of metaphoric archeology. Beginning with the 1983 bronze figure Figure Five, Oliveira is intent on invoking a narrative that can only be gleaned by reading between the lines--a personal reconstruction of memory and experience. With this sculpture--and with his Yucatan Sequence pieces--Oliveira uses familiar shapes and the suggestion of geography to invoke imaginative worlds. Part map, part archeological dig, they represent not so much a place as the vestiges of a place. Oliveira's sense of alchemy transforms them into worlds whose origins are hopelessly obscure.

So too with Oliveira's Site series, a collection of monotypes and paintings whose titles point to locations and cities but whose contents play like the artifacts of a lost civilization. Expertly conceived, their smoky atmosphere and familiar fragments are clever postcards from a surreal world.

In the 1990s, Oliveira made good on a subject that had captivated him since he was a child: birds. He turned his sketches of kestrels and hawks into the Windhover Series, a collection titled after the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem "The Windhover: To Christ Our Lord." Intent on capturing the arc of flight and the immensity of horizon, the series is Oliveira's attempt to abstract the concept of flight.

These large-scale drawings don't succeed nearly as well in that venture as his earlier works did in capturing the desolation of the solitary figure. Their grandeur and scope, while undeniable, are too insistent and serve to undermine the very quality they seek.

Oliveira gets closer to that quality in his oil and alkyd pieces painted in 2000. Antlers and Red Dog, for instance, synthesize raw energy down to texture and color.

Ultimately, however, Oliveira's power lies in the figure. Whether abstracted in his Stelae Series, or reduced to the mere suggestion of form in the 1999 watercolor Santa Fe Nude, his ability to invoke entire atmospheres is stunning.


Nathan Oliveira shows through May 12 at the San Jose Museum of Art, 110 S. Market St., San Jose. (408.271.6840)


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From the April 4-10, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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