Arts & Theater

Art review: Jerald Silva surprises with ‘Vague Not Vague’

Jerald Silva’s “Vacation” shows a dead-on likeness of Silva’s friend and former Sacramento mayor, R. Burnett Miller, right.
Jerald Silva’s “Vacation” shows a dead-on likeness of Silva’s friend and former Sacramento mayor, R. Burnett Miller, right.

Be prepared to be surprised when you go to see Jerald Silva’s show “Vague Not Vague” at b. sakata garo this month.

Silva – who is renowned for his precise renderings of the figure in a masterful watercolor technique – departs from his earlier works in a series of atmospheric, dreamlike paintings of friends and acquaintances.

It is Silva’s first gallery show in 12 years, during which time he has been working on major commissions, including a series of large-scale “Steamy Window” watercolors for Sutter Hospital, which will be installed once the building in midtown is completed.

The new paintings in this show grew out of the “Steamy Window” series, Silva said at the gallery.

“A painting is a puzzle,” he said, noting that puzzles are most interesting when they are still unfinished. “When they are completed, they are still puzzles but are no longer compelling.”

“X Painting,” a steamy window through which you see an urban street scene where the steam has been wiped away, provides a bridge between his past works and his new visions.

“It’s like a strip tease,” Silva said of the painting. “You are fascinated by what you’re not allowed to see.”

In some of his new works, you also need, at times, to put together the image like a puzzle. A large painting of people coloring Easter eggs at first seems incomprehensible, but when you put it together in your mind, it’s a beautiful scene whose rich colors sing.

In a way what Silva is doing here is very Zen. The viewer must complete the painting, intuitively forming a gestalt.

The works in the show are in varying states of vagueness. “Chalkboard in 5 Stanzas” is a serial self-portrait that goes from blank slate to full image to erasure. “White Still Life” is a stunning painting of vessels and plants partially concealed behind a sheet of paper so that you see most of the image as a kind of shadow. This exquisite painting reminds me, not in execution but in subject and sensibility, of works by Morris Graves.

Perhaps the vaguest work in the show is “Robyn Totem,” a blurry emanation of the figure that is more aura than image. It has the feeling of coming out of a deep dream and makes me think of Symbolist artists like Odilon Redon and Gustave Morreau. Next to it, “Robyn Answers” is more resolved but still dreamlike. It’s like a blurry Vermeer as Robyn holds a phone up to her ear in an evocative interior.

Some of the strongest works in the show are paintings of artist Julia Couzens, with whom Silva regularly draws figures. “Haughty Julia” is a powerful portrait of Couzens with her head thrown back as if in some kind of ecstasy, a secular Guido Reni. In another image, Couzens holds up a gauzy piece of material, partially obscuring her figure. It’s a compelling image that is not really vague.

In speaking of the title of the show, Silva observed that the presentation of the newer paintings is vague, but the images are extremely specific. Thus in “Vacation,” the male figure in the foreground, while vague, is a dead-on likeness of Silva’s friend and former Sacramento mayor, R. Burnett Miller. Even when he is trying to be vague, Silva scores a home run.

“This has been a fabulous year,” Silva said. “It was like coming out of a hole. I could not stop developing ideas.”

“I’ve been paying close attention to my dreams,” he said. “In these works, I am seeking dream images, things that have no edges, no sharp color changes, no details.”

It’s a risky direction for Silva to go in and may well disappoint some of his fans. But it is a brave and moving direction for the 78-year-old artist.

Jerald Silva: Vague Not Vague

Where: b. sakata garo, 92320th St., Sacramento

When: Through Nov. 1. Noon-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday

Cost: Free

Information: (916)447-4276

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