On a recent trip to Sacramento, CA I met up with painter David Ligare to walk through his newly opened retrospective David Ligare: California Classicist, at the Crocker Art Museum. Comprised of over 70 drawings and paintings spanning the breath of his career, my visit revealed the growth and development of his art to me.
David Ligare, born in Ohio, came to California in the late 1960s to attend Art Center of Design in Pasadena. After graduating, he moved to the greater San Francisco bay area, where he has live since. Ligare’s career began in the mid 1970s, when his “photo-realistic” style matched that of other contemporary painters of the time, such as Robert Bechtle, Richard Estes, and Richard McLean. The photorealist group focused on representing the everyday and mundane (Bechtle with his snapshots of suburbia, Estes through complex images of complex urban settings, McLean through Americana) while exaggerating the properties of the image. In doing so they tied themselves to the foundational principals of pop art – flat painting and the everyday – while injecting the realism granted by photography into painting.
While Ligare is often lumped in with this group because of the proximity of his career to the broad recognition of the style, such a grouping is not wholly accurate. Ligare broke free of the constraints of photorealism while still keeping the realism in this work. He did so in two ways. The first was to reject the mundane subject matter of contemporary life, replacing it with his deep love of classical painting and philosophy. Instead of scenes from outside of his studio window, a painting by Ligare instead takes us on a journey back in time to when women walked around in flowing Grecian robes and men hunted with bow and arrow in the barest of coverings.
The other way he broke free has to do with the manner in which Ligare creates his compositions. Instead of relying on a single photograph to paint from, Ligare pulls together elements from different images and weaves them together into a seamless new reality that could have almost once existed. Key to looking at his many narratives and landscapes is realizing that the settings are not of the Italian or Greek countryside. They are in fact the hills, valleys, and coastline around Big Sur or Monterey at the upper edge of California’s central coast. This knowledge, however, does not impact the beauty and meaning contained in the work.
Together, this method of painting both embraces and denies both the modern and classical traditions: Denying the modern through the inclusion of narrative content, philosophy, and painting as if the canvas is a window unto the world; denying the classical because the paintings are largely created from photographs, instead of preparatory drawings or live model sittings. Thus, the works exist between both traditions, inhabiting the realm that we have come to call the post-modern, but the strong ties the paintings hold to the classical world make him unique even in the milieu of the post-modern.
The exhibition has one gallery largely focused on early works from the 1970s-1980s. On the tightly hung walls we see Ligare’s development and the adoption of his trademark realism, as well as his love of the classical. Comprised largely of works on paper, we find drawings in pencil of lines dredged in a sandy beach, watercolor studies of folded fabrics and cresting ocean waves, and later graphite studies of nude figures and landscapes that signal the beginning of his mature style. These early pieces reveal Ligare’s facility in mediums outside of oil paint. They also show us that, given the dominant art scene he came of age in, Ligare never was interested in abstraction or the high conceptualism of the period. The closest he came to any of that can be seen in the drawings of abstract lines in the sand and the watercolors of textiles strewn about the sand or flying in the ocean breeze. But, these works can only be read as realistic depictions of abstraction/conceptualism, and not as either of those modes in and of themselves.
This movement beyond the strictures of modernism was not the only way that Ligare defied the trajectory of western art, however. In many of the narrative paintings, from the beginning of their creation to the present, the viewer is allowed to enjoy Ligare’s engagement with the nude male form – something largely absent from western painting traditions. Variously we find Hercules, an archer, a diving swimmer, an African American man riding a white horse, Orpheus, a shepherd, and an African American version of the Vitruvian man, among others.
Ligare’s figures do not conform to the sculpted, steroidal, and fetishized depictions of men in today’s mainstream advertising and fitness culture. Instead the figures are toned and muscular to the point that regular exercise and hard physical labor would achieve. This slight exaggeration beyond the ordinary is the epitome of the ideal male form as set forth by the ancient Greeks. Another key difference separating Ligare’s male figures from the standards of advertising today is the softness with which he paints them.
Smooth skinned, delicately tanned, and tenderly painted, the figures represent the athletic, yet approachable male whose physical strength does not dominate his personality. In today’s over-saturated media landscape, the standards we hold men to are variously: porn stars, gym trainers, gangsters, soldiers, and superstar athletes. The muscled physic of each has come to represent a different mixed metaphor for the role of men in our culture – the sex god, the alpha male preener, king of the local hood, ruler of the battlefield, and god of the regulated arenas of gladiatorial pursuits. The type of man Ligare paints has all but disappeared from American mainstream culture, pushed aside by trends of body building, increased militarism, and the numerous corporate enterprises profiting from them. This shift has left the American male to view himself through the lens of polar opposites – hyper bulked, ultra-muscled, dominance; or soft, average, subservience – never mind that there is a whole range of body types and personalities in between.
Ligare’s men remind us of a place in the middle that splits the difference and has greater freedom, in a cultural sense, than the narrowly defined roles of American power culture today. His classical subject matter, also, reminds us that the knowledge of the ancients still has relevance in today’s world, particularly in our human discourse, sense of history, and the enduring tragedy that is human existence.
David Ligare: California Classicist is on view at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento until September 20, 2015. To see more of David Ligare’s work CLICK HERE.