I’ve become a great fan of David Ligare, a “post-modern neo-classic” artist based in Carmel Valley, California who has had over forty-five solo exhibitions in New York, London, Los Angeles, Rome and elsewhere.
David’s paintings reveal the beauty, harmony and proportion found in nature and is infused with a sense of gratitude. Moral excellence is another theme that he is keen on exploring and portraying. His work is represented in many museum collections including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco and the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. He has taught for The University of Notre Dame Rome Studies Program, The Prince of Wales Institute of Architecture in London, The University of California, Santa Barbara and Hartnell College.
Here is the artist…
You consider yourself a “Post-Modern Neo-Classic” artist. Could you elaborate on this? Which aspects of the former and the latter characterise your work?
Since I have made a particular study of Greco-Roman culture and employed the myths and philosophy in my work I would say that I am a Neo-Classical artist. But much of the way that I view the ancient world has been informed by my knowledge and appreciation of Modern art. For example, the sculptor Polykleitos was one of the key figures in ancient Greece. His sculpture of the Doryphorous or Spearbearer (450 BCE) was possibly the first conceptual artwork. It was a bronze figure of a man but it was also a treatise on ideal human proportion. He accompanied it with a written text called the Kanon explaining his process and philosophy. The text is lost but the sculpture remains in numerous copies.
The first painting of yours that I encountered was “Still Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches (Xenia)” (1994). It is an incredibly powerful image that engaged me on many levels. I had two immediate reactions: One, I identified a sacramental undertone—as in, the tendency to see the produce of nature as a conduit of divine grace. The clean and clear platform on which you have placed the pitcher and the stack seemed almost an altar. Two, as the grape juice and sandwiches called to mind the wine and bread of the Eucharist, the image became a kind of commentary on somebody’s (either an individual or a society’s) spiritual/religious state.
Here’s what I thought—It’s like they definitely have these impulses, they are craving salvation and peace, making an effort to attain it but are just falling short of the real stuff. Grape juice and sandwiches are together a nourishment but they aren’t all that grand and fulfilling. There’s something more delicious and wholesome out there that could and should be aimed for, tasted and consumed. Ultimately, the painting was a compelling portrait of hope (in so far as it revealed spiritual aspiration) and a critique (in so far as it disclosed spiritual inadequacy). Please tell us the actual story behind this painting…what the concept of “Xenia” means to you and your experience in the soup kitchen that you have mentioned on your website.
I wanted to make a still life painting that was more than just a formal arrangement of attractive items. There are records of ancient paintings of hospitality gifts called Xenia. My painting of the Grape Juice and Sandwiches was literally a xenia in that those items were served each day at the soup kitchen where I volunteered for a very long time. Although I am not a religious person, there was the reference to the Eucharist because the group that ran the soup kitchen and shelter were called The Franciscan Workers. They were followers of Dorothy Day who ran a kitchen in New York.
You have created an entire series inspired by the Greek practice of “Aparchai”—the ritual of first-fruit offerings. In these paintings, you isolate apples and apricots, wheat and water, fish and peaches, ordinary items. What I loved about this collection was that it has the potential to instill a sense of gratitude in the viewer. So many of us live in the supermarket culture, constantly surrounded by excess and easy variety. Food, toys, tools, apparel, even people—anything, everything—could be claimed and discarded arbitrarily. We frequently fail to register the true value and worth of resources and objects in their particularity. Your paintings are bold and revolutionary—and joyfully so—as they regard common stuff with the lens of reverence.
Why is the concept of “Aparchai” so fascinating to you and what do you think we moderns could learn from this ancient custom? How may we practise it in the middle of our consumerist, capitalist societies?
As I have noted, I noticed small shrines in Nepal with gifts of fruit and rice and they reminded me of paintings that I had seen from Ancient Pompeii and Herculaneum. I began doing research and discovered that there was indeed a ritual of thanksgiving that was practiced by the Greeks and Romans. The idea of a painting representing gratitude for a successful harvest or other undertaking is again informed by Twentieth Century Conceptual Art – art about ideas. While, as I say, I am not a religious person, I do believe in giving thanks as often as I can to everything around me. I have been very fortunate in my life.
“Summa” is an amazing, outstanding work—a marble bust before a wooden board is placed on a table by the sea. The head is situated between a stick and a sphere. Here’s what I made of this vision—as a man lives on this earth, he essentially finds himself suspended between two forces, Circularity (eg, the repetition of seasons, one generation simply imitating the actions of the previous generation) and Linearity (eg, the straight journey from the cradle to the grave, the evolving culture of a nation). That’s pretty much it to the human experience. All events occur within the dramatic space that is defined—in various ways—by the line and the circle, the rod and the cycle.This is the summary, the synthesis of it all. I am wondering—what were you thinking when you developed this simple yet profoundly meaningful painting? What is the real significance of the stick and the sphere?
I very much like your interpretation of my painting Summa but the real story is this: the bust is a plaster cast of the head of the Doryphorous that I mentioned above. The “stick” is actually a bit of cane which was the root of the word Kanon meaning measure. The sphere was considered by many to be the most perfect form because nothing could be added or subtracted that would be an improvement. Several years ago I made a painting of a rock shrine in the water with the title Magna Fide or the great belief. I like big ideas! I also like didactic ideas – they seem radical to me – a kind of new modernity.
I read that you have been influenced by the theories of Polykleitos, a sculptor from the 5th century BC. You have honoured him with a painting titled “Still Life with Polykleitan Head, (The Kanon)”. “The Kanon”, I gather, was his aesthetic treatise. Would you share some of his teachings that you like?
The treatise called the Kanon was hugely famous in ancient times. I keep hoping that a copy will be found somewhere. The big idea there is the concept of Symmetria or the “Commensurability of the disparate parts. It is the foundational idea of the ultimate beauty of integration. Polykleitos was probably influenced by Pythagoras who developed a philosophy of proportionality. The harmonically integrated proportions of a man or woman translate also into the integrated proportions of a city and a government. This was the period of the first Democracy.
Your 2011 interview with Robert Dickenson opens on a very thought-provoking note. “What would you say is the opposite of art?” You reply to this with the following:
Oh. I would say that the opposite of art is ignorance. Beyond the technical aspects of making art, there is a language that allows us to truly see a work. All art exists within a structure of critical and historical knowledge that is constantly evolving and being reevaluated – just like language itself. For example, when I was teaching I would make a drawing on the board and ask the class to identify it. It was very clear and precise but no one ever guessed correctly that it was the Japanese character for rain. My point was that art, all art from ancient to contemporary, is a language and unless you understand the vocabulary you can’t really see it. Moreover, the language keeps shifting, inventing and then reinventing itself.
What do you think about the public’s ability to make sense of art today? In your immediate American context, do you feel that an emphasis on STEM and a decline of the humanities have rendered people less equipped to unpack the language/vocabulary of art? Or is it mostly the other way round—has the explosion of communication, the growth of online encyclopaedia made it somehow easier for people in general to decipher and interpret creative products? This is a big and sweeping question but I’d like to know your perspective on the matter.
First of all, there is a great public passion for Modern and Contemporary Art. I see this when I visit museums like the Tate Modern or The Museum of Modern Art in New York or many other museums and galleries. In addition, the astonishing prices for Contemporary art in the auction houses show that it is hugely desirable. As far as schools are concerned, I think that they teach what the students are willing to learn (Contemporary Art) rather than really teaching them to understand light and shadow, form, the physiognomies of plants and animals (including humans), etc., in other words, the language of nature. Computers do many wonderful things for us but they cannot provide a substitute for drawing or painting from direct observation, that is, basic hand/eye/brain training.
You also observe in that 2011 interview—That said, I am probably wrong in accepting as much of the contemporary art world as I do. Much of it is way too clichéd at this point.—In what ways, do you think, has contemporary art turned “clichéd”? When I look for talent online, I often feel the same, especially when it comes to abstract painting…
I have great respect for the early moderns especially who were truly Avant Garde. The experiments of, say, Marcel Duchamp, changed everything but he would be amused at how so many artists are now using his ideas as if they were still original. That said, some of the cliched works can be very amusing and even poetical. Over and over in the history of art, an artist or artists come up with an original idea and as it becomes popular more and more artists imitate it and it becomes cliched. It’s a natural process.
In your discussion on landscape painting, you mention John Steinbeck and Robinson Jeffers as inspirations. Which writings of theirs do you love most?
John Steinbeck’s book, The Grapes of Wrath was astounding to me when I read it as a very young man but his slim volume called The Pastures of Heaven caused me to make a particular study of the pastoral mode that has come down to us from Theocritus and Virgil. The pastoral landscape is a threshold region between the city and the wilderness. It’s beauty and ease represent a perfection that it passing. Nicolas Poussin’s painting of shepherds at a tomb (Et In Arcadia Ego) is a recognition of death and the passing of time in an ideal landscape.
The presence of death set in a dangerously beautiful landscape is also a frequent theme in Jeffers’ poetry but my favorite poem of his is Rock and Hawk.
I loved how you described the output of the French artist Claude Lorrain (c.1600-1682) in a write-up. His paintings and drawings, you say, are essays on mortality—the passing of a civilisation or the closing of a day. Claude reminds us of our beauty and fragility, also “the dearness of our natural world”. You yourself paint in a manner wherein the delicacy and the splendour of fruitage and foliage are evident, wherein the elements are always close and comforting. You make prominent every blade of grass, grain of sand, the turn of wind, fold of wave. Given your love of nature, what are your thoughts on humankind’s current relationship with its environment?
In your latest exhibition “MAGNA FIDE (The Great Belief)”, at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, you explore the idea of “wholeness”. On your Facebook page, you describe the works in this show as “unfashionably didactic”. Why so?
I found it disturbing, though hardly shocking, when I read on your Facebook page that critics refused to write about your 2016 exhibition at the Georgia Museum of Art, the entire art faculty and student body of the University of Georgia boycotted the exhibition and your lecture in their own museum. Your central idea there was the Greek concept of “Arête”—the potential for excellence found in all peoples—and it was, you point out, quite unacceptable. You went on:
Critics prefer to promote works that are, as Susan Sontag wrote, ‘Against Interpretation’ or that promote victimhood. While it is true that we have many societal issues that need resolving such as income inequality, racism, sexism, etc., we also have the need for a renewed belief in rational thought and action.
I totally get what you are trying to say. We live in a time where vice is exposed regularly but virtue rarely applauded—which makes the ethical project woefully incomplete. I recently wrote a post on G.K. Chesterton who highlighted this problem back in 1900s. Artists can shed light on what’s wrong with the world, they can provide us with images of failure—totally fine—but if they fail to simultaneously supply images of triumph and rectitude and order and discipline, what’s wrong will never truly be made right. In the absence of a clear idealism, any cautionary project of realism will simply end up going nowhere. Keeping this in mind, in which areas of human conduct, do you think, we need more images of “excellence”? And also, would you tell us more about your Georgia exhibition?
When I was forming my thoughts on Greek art and literature I read a book entitled “On Moral Fiction,” by John Gardner. It dealt with many of the issues you mention, but rather than being “moral” in the manner in which religions are often judgmental and bigoted, his morality was more humanistic. As the book-flap said, Gardner presents “A truly honest and open-minded effort to find out what best promotes human fulfillment…by the kind of analysis of characters and the things they do that brings both writer and reader to understanding, sympathy, and love for human possibility.” The true definition of Realism is the presentation of the ordinary everyday life. Aside from any moral issues about human potential, etc., art depicting ordinary life is way, way over-done.
The Georgia exhibition was one of the stops for my retrospective exhibition that was organised by the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California. Making highly representational paintings about history is just not allowed in the art world today. The students and faculty were just following fashion.
Speaking of virtue, I noticed that you have a painting titled “Hercules Protecting the Balance Between Pleasure and Virtue” (1993). What sort of cultural observations generated this piece?
The essence of Classicism is the balance between two opposites, say, between order and chaos. But I early-on noticed that many whole systems were described in terms of three, say, Plato’s criteria for art; mimetic correctness, usefulness and attractiveness. My painting of Hercules Protecting the Balance Between Pleasure and Virtue shows how the balance is maintained by the third element. It is the answer to the argument between the number two and the number three.
Why is the sea so important to you? It is the deep and calm backdrop to so many of your still lifes…
I have nearly always lived within sight or smell of the sea. To put even just a finger into the sea is to touch all of the continents of the world. Generally speaking I prefer to depict a calm sea rather than a dramatic one because it represents a kind of waiting or anticipation.
What would you have been if not an artist?
Possibly an art restorer.
Finally, what are you planning to work on in the near future?
Last year, I did an exhibition at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art called “Magna Fide, (The Great Belief)” that was primarily about the duality between the enigma and the ideal. In September I will do an exhibition of new still life paintings at Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York.
Learn more about David Ligare on his website (www.davidligare.com) and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/davidligare).
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