David Park: “Works on Paper 1930-1960”at Hackett-Freedman Gallery
David Park was once quoted as having said that any problem of graphic or pictorial composition could by resolved by making color adjustments, and this exhibition of some of his later works put paid to that claim. The show was made up of 13 colorful gouache works supplemented by about the same number of ink-on-paper drawings. In all cases, the works are small, but the color works seem much larger than they actually are, for several reasons. One of these is that they focus on faces, and occasionally they also feature hands, while the ink works tend to be conventional figure studies of the type that might be related to the artist’s well-known oil paintings executed from 1955 to 1959.
Park was diagnosed with cancer in late-1959, meaning that he had to give up working in oil; gouache was the best alternative that he had, because acrylic paint was not yet available on the West Coast. With it, Park could work many of the same virtuoso wonders that he achieved in oil, masterfully juggling passages of thin atmospheric effects set against more opaque areas where fluid gesture moves into the foreground. In the majority of the works, chromaticism was considered in a way that emphasized stunning effects that combined the influences of Pierre Bonnard and Max Beckman. Here, color is understood as not merely an optimal list of chromatic ingredients parsed through the optic of “color theory” but rather as a demonstration of how those ingredients can be blended and organized into a highly refined cuisine that extracts exquisite degrees of visual pleasure from otherwise unassuming pictorial spaces surrounding seemingly humble subjects.
When Park made his famous return to painting the figure in 1950, a great many of his initial efforts also focused on faces; the fact that Max Beckman had a retrospective in San Francisco that same year seems to be an important point of influence. But the return to the pathos of the isolated face that we see in the later gouache works bespeaks much more than a desire on the part of Park to return to his sources.
Previous to his diagnosis, Park’s work celebrated the sensual body living in a state of idealized self-possession. But after the diagnosis that foreshadowed his death late in 1960, the ideal body was forsaken in favor of identifying the face as being the seat of a humanity that could be tragically betrayed by the very body that gave birth to it.