Arts & Theater

Art review: David Ligare paintings at Crocker Art Museum

David Ligar’s “Penelope,” an oil painting from 1980, is on view at the Crocker Art Museum beginning June 7.
David Ligar’s “Penelope,” an oil painting from 1980, is on view at the Crocker Art Museum beginning June 7.

Contemporary artist David Ligare, whose major retrospective opens at the Crocker Art Museum on Sunday, has been called a post-modernist, a pre-modernist and a neoclassicist.

In a way, says Crocker chief curator Scott Shields, who organized the show, all of those terms fit.

“But if I had to choose, I’d say neoclassicist, since we are calling him a California Classicist.”

Blending California light and Monterey-area landscapes often populated by men in togas and women in flowing Grecian gowns, some of his paintings might have been done in the 18th century, except that they are so photographic.

Some have even described him as a photorealist, though there is nothing realistic about his work. Influenced by Nicolas Poussin (1593/4-1665), the father of French Classical painting, and the ideas of ancient Greek philosophers, he gives us carefully contrived allegorical paintings that address Greek concepts such as arete (spiritual excellence) and xenia (hospitality).

Thus his painting “Hercules at the Crossroads” depicts the hero at a place where two paths – a winding path of pleasure and a stony path of virtue – meet. His painting “Still Life with Grape Juice and Sandwiches (Xenia)” illustrates hospitality and social responsibility, since these are the offerings at a homeless shelter where Ligare volunteers.

“Penelope,” on the other hand. presents a figure from Greek mythology, the patient wife of Odysseus waiting for him to return from the Trojan War. In Ligare’s hands, she might be the noble figure Homer portrayed or a fashionable California matron relaxing after a swim.

In “Achilles and the Body of Patroclus (The Spoils of War),” he gives us a measured and moving image of the fallen warrior and his friend. The heroic figures might have been painted by Caravaggio as they emerge from the chiaroscuro. Unlike some of his history paintings, which can verge on kitsch, it is a grave image.

A large part of Ligare’s work is devoted to the still life, a genre he seeks to bring up to the level that history painting held in the days of the French Academy. Often placing objects in front of a kind of L-shaped wall with the sea in the background, he gives us smoothly painted objects and their cast shadows that for him have philosophical meanings.

In “Still Life with Bread and Wine,” he alludes to the Christian concept of the Eucharist. In “Still Life with Skull and Polaroid,” he gives us a contemporary memento mori.

Many of these still life paintings have a surreal quality – “The Philosophy of Flowers II” with its blazing bouquet, comes to mind – and reveals another influence on his work: Salvador Dali, whom he met as a young man.

Though many of Ligare’s sources are ancient, Shields says, he is very much a contemporary artist in that his way of seeing has been so strongly influenced by photography. And he reminds us that contemporary artists working in abstract modes are also looking to a past that reaches back a hundred years.

“Ligare,” he says, “is just looking back farther.”

Shields values the work especially because Ligare “is pursuing a course that goes against the grain. Ligare made a choice back in the early 1980s to follow a path that others were not pursuing and has stuck with it.”

“David Ligare: California Classicist” will travel to the Laguna Museum in Laguna Beach, the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, Ga., and the Triton Museum in Santa Clara. It has a 268-page catalog co-written by Shields.

David Ligare: California Classicist

  • Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento
  • When: June 7-Sept. 20; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday
  • Cost: $10-$5. Free for museum members and children 6 and under. Every third Sunday of the month is “Pay What You Wish” Sunday.
  • Information: (916) 808-7000.