Roland Petersen’s newest acrylic paintings in his show at Elliott Fouts Gallery demonstrate that at 90, the artist is not afraid to experiment with new approaches to the composition of his famous “Picnic” series.
Adopting an aerial viewpoint in “Looking Down at a Picnic,” 2016, Petersen gives us a radical perspective on a familiar scene that now looks strange. Full of speeding diagonals and bold color, the painting of anonymous, alienated figures who do not interact is imbued with a new painterly vigor and physicality that hearkens back to the artist’s earlier pre-acrylic work.
Though nothing will ever take the place of his heavily encrusted oils with luscious impastos from the 1960s, these new pieces have an infectious vitality and ebullient spirit of their own. Their bold palette, gestural brushwork and abstract patterns are hallmarks of his mature work.
While most of the works in the show were done more recently, some date back several years, and at times Petersen departs from his picnic theme, giving us sensuous paintings of women bathing or lounging in bed. “Insomnia,” 1998, a bold work on paper glows with hot orange and deep blue tones. “Romantic Boating at Sunset,” 2015, an atypical scene of a decorous courting couple seen from a slightly elevated viewpoint, is a nostalgic tribute to the past with lushly brushed passages that activate the canvas.
“Corner Picnic Painting,” 2006, is also a departure. It’s a vibrant picnic scene that literally turns a corner. This new twist on a diptych is fascinating spatially and, according to Fouts, was a challenging task for a frame maker.
The “Picnic” series was inspired by annual faculty get-togethers at the University of California, Davis, which Petersen joined in 1956 as a member of an emerging art department that became famous for its early faculty members, including Wayne Thiebaud, Robert Arneson, William T. Wiley and Roy DeForest in addition to Petersen.
Including both figures and still-life elements, the paintings are set in flat valley fields where faceless figures in emotive colors stand under umbrellas or sit at picnic tables covered with striped or checkered cloths. Resembling the elemental figures of David Park, these enigmatic presences inhabit a world that breaks up into colorful geometric shapes that take on a life of their own.
This effect is amplified in “Viewing Picnic From Above,” 2016, with its vertical format and vertiginous perspective, the elements of the composition fanning out from a green-faced woman sitting at a table with a glass and a bottle of wine casting colorful shadows.
“Bouncing Beach Ball,” 2004, though more conventional in viewpoint, is similarly filled with sharp angles and deep shadows and a row of lollipoplike trees that march off towards the horizon where a haloed ball bounces. As in many of Petersen’s paintings, the edges of the canvas are enlivened with figures, often partial, that intrude from an imagined world beyond the picture plane.
The expansive “Picnic Seen From Above,” 2016, features an intense range of blues forming shadows cast on the faces of women seated at a table covered with a checkerboard cloth. A green and yellow panting dog guards the scene near the top of the canvas. It looks at a woman in a yellow hat and a red-and-white tank top who stands under an orange-and-white umbrella.
Long retired from teaching at UC Davis, Petersen now lives in the Bay Area and continues to paint actively. While his recent paintings are rooted in the Bay Area Figurative style that first brought him national attention as a young painter, they are enlivened by an improvisational spirit that opens up new avenues for his work.
Roland Petersen: The Artist at 90
Where: Elliott Fouts Gallery, 1831 P St., Sacramento
When: Through Thursday June 2 at 11 a.m-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Information: 916-736-1429, www.efgallery.com