Friday, February 22, 2013

Welcome to Thibaud Street - Part I

People always think they understand Wayne Thibaud's [1920- ] work. It's straightforward, realistic, familiar, vivid and seemingly passive. It's cool, balanced, poised and settled. It isn't going anywhere. It's confident, certain of its means, and doesn't seem to be trying to convince us of anything. It exists in the world we know, and has made peace with it. It is--in the common parlance of our day--what it is.

Thibaud's work has been associated with Pop Art, New Realism, but his career--and the meaning and significance of his work--is much broader than those categories. In an arc of development which included time with the Walt Disney Studios, periods as a cartoonist and commercial designer, as well as personal encounters with the Abstract Expressionists de Kooning and Kline in the Fifties, he came around independently, slightly ahead of the curve, to a position of straight representation by 1960, and was poised for the Pop Art movement which exploded in the early 'Sixties. Though other Pop Art figures, such as Warhol, Lichtenstein, Ruscha, and Wesselmann, saw Pop in terms of conceptual or camp satire and irony, Thibaud's work was a full investment in the traditional qualities of painterly skill, evocation of feeling, and fidelity to the imaginative qualities of material objects. Thibaud didn't distance himself from his subject matter, and this care showed in the lavish indulgence of his technique and his pristine approach to each picture's occasion. The space around a Thibaud subject was charged with all kinds of feelings--desire, obsession, alienation, effulgence, surfeit, nostalgia, celebration, loneliness, and a kind of hypnotic meditative calm--which the objects held in a perfect glow of intensity. 

On a very general level, Thibaud's work divides fairly neatly into a few obvious categories: 

other (fetish) items i.e., shoes, chalk, ties, etc.

Within this system of objects, he creates a world of brightly lit, intriguing depictions which draw us into a reawakening to the immediate visual, physical presence of material objects, which is both an augmentation of the real world, as well as a dream-like transformation of them, adrift in a void of steady energy and light. 

What seems immediately apparent in Thibaud's representation is its roots in advertising and commercial promotion. Though gum-ball and pin-ball and candy machines occupy a central place in his oeuvre, it isn't as a critique of their promotional intent, but as a fascination with their object-status, their "thing-ness" that drives Thibaud's interest. Such objects both are, and are not, symbols of the use of color and seductive charm to connect to a consumer society. The enumeration of production-line products from diners and cafeterias and vending machines derives directly from the automated, mass production culture, and the advertising promotional procedures which create demand in consumers. And the influence of cartoons influences his modeling of inanimate things, as well as real people, and like cartoon representation, his subjects are almost always isolated against empty backdrops without context or reference.     

But Thibaud's graphic style isn't the "Super- or Photo-realism" of, say, Robert Bechtle. Thibaud's paintings aren't challenges to photography, or even, for that matter, to reality itself. One of the tendencies in both Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, was to draw attention to the artistic materials themselves, the "media" (or materials) of representation (as subject). From his earliest studies of food and other objects, it was apparent that Thibaud felt a sensual interconnection between the qualities of pigment, and how it is seen on surfaces, and the palpable qualities of the objects themselves--paint both was and was not the cake dough, whipped cream, frosting, syrup, fruit pulp, mayonnaise, lolly-pops and cue balls, lipstick cylinders and mason jars, and all the other "stuff." But the paint in Thibaud's canvases wasn't the active flourish, the energetic athleticism of the Expressionists; it was studied, careful, measured, arranged. The technique was clever, devoted, focused, but never trivial or brash. It has always seemed as if Thibaud cared deeply about everything he chose to depict, that he wanted to give it his undivided, patient attention.

Looking at these Eight Lipsticks [1964], you have the unmistakeable feeling that their lushly imagined colors are a stand-in for the painter's pigments. Rather than an "imitation" of a shape and color, the paint and the lipsticks are united in a perfect marriage of material synergy. Lipstick evokes lips, and taste, and the oily sensation of touch, and kissing. We almost want to eat this "stuff" in the same way that we want to taste and consume the cakes, pies, candy, ice-cream, gum-balls, sundaes, eclairs, and fruit wedges ranked so neatly and tantalizingly before our eyes. This sensual evocation, almost dionysian in spirit, goes well beyond the "Pop" tropes usually associated with a bland regard for the object- and commodity-rich environment of the modern capitalist paradigm. A Warhol Campbell's Soup Can cannot be claimed to have the same affectionate desirability of a Thibaud subject. Warhol is all about branding and the cross-fertilization of commercial and aesthetic contexts, ultimately making all art into conceptual gamesmanship, a free-floating mélange of commoditized, desensitized, blasé negligence. But Thibaud is stubbornly present in all his work, insisting on the inalienable integrity of each occasion, a devotion to particulars. In a Thibaud painting, you feel more, not less, about the subject, than you may have brought to it. And though most of his works are clearly "unreal" in some of their augmentations of the visual field--i.e., slightly improbable colors, denser shadows, emptier backgrounds--that degree of augmentation is scaled to a sensible limit of distortion.    

In a sense, Thibaud's distraction is quite like the distraction which the object world of consumerism presents. We want to "consume" in at least three senses: To have and experience the sweet taste of the food and pretty things which he paints; we want literally to recapture our sensual memories of them, and we want in turn to consume or devour (or own) the painting itself, its sensual presence (as a consumer of the objet d'art. A painting can be good enough to eat, to own, and to dream about. When an object enters our consciousness as a positive symbol or image of desire, it templates indelibly, but with a difference. We can look at and appreciate a very beautiful snake, for instance, while still understanding it to be poisonous and dangerous to get near; we can separate the gorgeous color arrangement of scales--of rings and diamonds and ovals and jagged lines--knowing full well that in nature, such brilliant "advertisements" signify jeopardy rather than a good meal or a playful toy. We can separate these senses of beautiful surfaces from the underlying meaning of the objects represented in the same way that we keep clear demarcations between real things--like cakes or lolly-pops--and the painterly qualities by which we are able to "copy" them from "nature." Entering a Thibaud painting is a little like having a dream about the subject being portrayed. Objects in a dream may glow and oscillate with an intensity beyond that experienced by a normal, awake mind. 

We know without a doubt that the blue shadows in the painting of wedges of lemon or angel-food cake above are unreal. Even in a high intensity ulta-violet fluorescent illumination, that blue would be well off the scale of possibility. But we accept that blue as a meaningful enhancement. It's our bargain with the painter; we allow this adjustment--half real and half dreamlike--in the interests of an idealized vision. We may ask why so much attention and importance should be assigned merely to a row of cut cake wedges, but their omnipresent tastefulness, their sweet succulence is completely absorbing. We know that too many sweets are not good for us, but as sensual indulgences, we are permitted to engage with them vicariously, as an effete mental nourishment; the metaphorical excess calories and raised blood sugar are merely the residue of an aesthetic routine. There's no guilt associated with feeling this about a painting, just as there's no danger in gazing at a venomous snake in a cage. Both experiences are safe, and fascinating. In each case, we're insulated by a membrane, between what we know is possible (or potentially dangerous or unlikely to happen) and what we're at liberty to feel without jeopardy. The parameters and consequences of what we're experiencing are pre-ordained, set. 

This link between medium and content reaches a kind of apotheosis for me in the color on paper piece Various Pastels [1972], in which the artist's materials become the subject of their own execution. The pleasure one feels at the rich pastel palette, the wax chalks laid out in random, yet perfectly balanced, disarray, challenges the limits of the signified. The distance between what we assume about the functional purpose of the medium is reduced to a narrow compass of availability. Whereas Warhol could present "paint by numbers" spoofs which poked fun at art as an ennobling process, Thibaud raises the quotidian tool to the highest level, with the playful delight of any unfettered pastime. The same abilities and innovations which can bring a simple landscape to life, raise this very closed, circumscribed study of chalk crayons to a pinnacle of feeling. We want to hold and study these crayons, to have them rub off on our fingers, to have them jostle with each other, mixing their vivid, sticky, powdery-ness against each other.  The objectification of desire in entirely inert objects. It's almost sexual.      

I've mentioned that Thibaud's objects seem to evoke a dream-like state in which things may seem "more real" than reality, that their enhanced visual qualities can mimic our actual sensual memories of the things being depicted. In his landscapes, there is a further dimension, that of the adjustment and distortion of proportion and perspective to express our possible mis-apprehension of the world (of the effective rearrangement and insistence of dreams). 

Welcome to Thibaud Street, where real and imagined proportions impinge abruptly against one another. Living adjacent to, or actually in San Francisco, one is party to its weirdly improbable and counter-intuitive disjunctions and intersections and backdrops.  What happens to our visual memories of such steep streets, precipitous overhangs and interpolated perspectives in dreams? In dreams, we rearrange and remake real views to suit our preferred versions of them. We move things around, we put them into odd or impossible conjunction. Buildings may seem to perch on precipices. Streets may seem to go straight up or straight down, the fear or disorientation we may feel only subliminally while moving through the city may express itself as exalted contortions which defy gravity and and the laws of physics. And yet, such distortions may actually be pleasurable and fascinating to make. 

Landscapes like this resemble the perspectives of traveling on a rollercoaster, but our interest in them as painted examples of a probable familiar memory go deeper than a joyride. There is an awesome acknowledgment that what we're doing through the active reification of imaginary landscapes is to bring our perceived, preferred world into clearer focus, allowing us to study our intuitive tendencies with minute attention. The drop-off to the left of the plant at the edge of the street on the lower left of the scene above, for instance, hints at a yawning cavity of space, filled with precarious liability, almost Dante-esque in its suggestiveness of risk. The world may seem like a danger-filled obstacle-course of traps and protuberances and flying hazards, and yet there is always the retreat into the circumscribed precinct of the self--or, maybe not . . . .

There's an unsettling disorientation at work here, which is not in any way mitigated by our placement inside an interior inclosure. Harsh sunlight reveals a precipice, an unbalanced vantage over an absurdly improbable boulevard. This might be fun to experience in a dream, but there's a terrifying discomfort in it as well. Those red-hot window mullions suggest something much darker, perhaps a sense that life might be a dilemma of unimagined dead-ends. As the world rises up to confound us, the very earth under our feet may be shifting, the tectonic plates realigning and adjusting to some grand plan we can only guess at. We live in a world of huge forces, usually experienced at the level of minutely noted shifts,  tiny increments of the larger picture. 

The sense of jeopardy and risk associated with Thibaud's strange landscape depictions is one with the deeper meaning of his earlier object studies. Whereas one wants to possess the sensual object--a piece of pie, or candy, or a beautiful body--you realize that you are forever prevented from this ultimate possession by the membrane of the medium. The tantalizing food on the plate on the light-bathed table can never satisfy the crucial hungers which guide our mortal passage. We are driven to crave certain things, though at a deeper level we can see these are ephemeral needs, as the sustenance for the limited engagement of mortality. We're powerless to resist what the visual treat promises, even as we know it's a counterfeit of actual life. The mirror of representation gives us back exactly what we put into it, and we love that process. Awash in the sensual theater of physical objects, we're in a perfect quandary, poised between our brief lives and the larger forces which govern all motion and event. The physical world beckons, diverts and entertains, is consumed and digested and disposed, only to reform in ever-intriguing new disguises.   


Conrad DiDiodato said...


the night after reading this I dreamt I'd tried to take a snapshot, on my iPhone (though I actually don't have one!), of a rollercoaster road, from the top looking down, just as I was about to drive down it. I suppose my intention was to post it with commentary at my blog. The road in my dream (I soon realized) was actually one I'd walked up and down on as a kid often whenever I visited a high school friend who'd lived at the top.

There must be something in the "unsettling disorientation" in the Thibaud artwork--or in perhaps its eerie resemblance to modern cityscapes, that caused this: perhaps Thibaud's art shows that deep archetypal fears of steep terrains and uncontrollable motions lie dormant til art resurrect them. Why do artistic representations of things with the potential to push us down or over, as into the 'black hole', affect us in this way? Francis Bacon's nightmarish bodies have also the same ambivalent attraction and repulsion powers.

Charles Shere said...

Thiebaud, Curtis, Thiebaud!