“Full Spectrum: Raimonds Staprans Paintings,” a major show of the Latvian-born Bay Area painter that covers 60 years of his career, at Crocker Art Museum presents a series of conundrums.
From beginning to end, there are echoes of works by other painters, some stronger than others. As you thumb through the exhibition catalog, you spot similarities to the works of Paul Cezanne and Hans Hofmann (he studied with Hofmann at UC Berkeley in the 1950s) to Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud. He acknowledges the first three as influences, but doesn’t like comparisons to Thiebaud, with whom he is most often paired.
The architectural quality of his landscapes – “Trondheim #1,” “Road to Redondo Shores,” “Afternoon 5” and “An Italian Sunset” – call up associations with both Diebenkorn’s Bay Area Figurative work and his later “Ocean Park” series; the subject matter, deep shadows, and halation of edges in his vibrant still life images of paint cans, chairs and cherries immediately make you think of Thiebaud.
Exhibition curator Scott Shields points out other congruencies with works by Gregory Kondos, Roland Petersen and other Northern California artists as well, but he attributes these similarities to a regional “zeitgeist” that stems from the landscape and the light, which is bright, white and aggressive.
As you move through the show, experiencing the paintings firsthand, you realize that Staprans’ work as it progresses is very much his own. As Shields notes, his landscapes, devoid of people though altered and acted upon by them, convey a pervasive, existential loneliness that his still life paintings share in spite of the rich, prismatic spectrum they display
His earliest work from the 1950s and ’60s shows the influence of the lushly colored, thickly painted abstractions of French painter Nicolas de Stael (1914-1955) and to a lesser extent Hoffman’s “push-pull” theory of painting. There are some delightful examples from this period in the hallway outside the main exhibition rooms, among them radiant images of flower pots and Mexican jugs executed with thick impasto and a kind of European verve, reminiscent of the collages of Jean Varda.
As his work progressed, his interest in impasto as a conveyor of emotional authenticity waned and he began thinning his paint, paring down his images to simpler shapes and planes, and emphasizing the abstract underpinnings of realism.
In his still life paintings especially, he often followed Cezanne’s dictum to “study geometric forms: the cone, the cube, the cylinder, the sphere” as evidenced by his electric painting “Four Windswept Oversize Oranges,” in which the neon-bright spheres with their cartoonist’s movement markings seem to roll on the tilted table-top. It’s a witty, riveting painting.
Poised between melancholy and eye-popping joie d’vivre, “An Almost Empty Cherry Crate with a Red Stripe” is a virtuoso painting that employs a wide spectrum of dazzling, almost hallucinatory colors, pitting the strong, almost schematic geometry of the box against the pitiful, overlooked and perhaps overripe cherry.
There’s a dry sense of humor, too, in “Still Life with Uncomfortable Folding Chair,” which conflates images associated with Diebenkorn and Thiebaud, and was gifted to the Crocker by the artist and his scientist wife, Ilona, last year.
Born in 1926 in Riga, Latvia, Staprans now resides in San Francisco, spending long hours in the studio and leading a somewhat reclusive existence. After an angst-filled childhood in occupied Latvia, he fled his native country with his family in 1944 and subsequently entered a displaced persons camp in Germany. In 1947, he immigrated to the United States with his family and studied art at the University of Washington with Mark Tobey and Alexander Archipenko. After a move to the Bay Area, he did graduate studies with, in addition to Hofmann, Erle Loran, Karl Kasten, and Worth Ryder.
While at the University of Washington, he also studied drama and is in Latvia a renowned playwright whose work reflects his anxious wartime experience and his absurdist European sensibility. A pair of atypical, expressionist works in the exhibit seem to spring from this part of his psyche. “Angry Bird” is a frightening creature with a misshapen neck and “In a Shower #3” is a harrowing nude with a blood-red background, a face obscured by red paint, and blood dripping down her legs. It’s a disturbing image that some find misogynistic, a criticism that has also been applied to some of Manuel Neri’s plaster nudes.
For me, this powerful expressionistic nude is one of Staprans’ most fascinating, emotionally forceful works and does not in my view denigrate women but rather empathizes with them.
The exhibition is accompanied by a full-color catalog with insightful and readable essays by Crocker chief curator and associate director Shields, Broad Museum critic Ed Shad, art historian Paul J. Karlstrom, art critics David Pagel and Nancy Princenthal, and poet and art critic John Yau.
Full Spectrum: Paintings by Raimonds Staprans
Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St.
When: Through October 8. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays.
Cost: $10-$5; Free for members and children 6 and under. Every third Sunday is “Pay What You Wish Sunday.”