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Art for Breakfast: David Park’s ‘Couple’


"I can’t do people," they say. The detail in a face is too much, the stakes of failure are too high. We rest incredible power in a facial expression — the tilt of an eyebrow and the height of a cheekbone. But faces are round and mushy things. They are built on soft shapes of muscle, not defined by lines but by shadows beneath a brow. Ears are not about that maze of folds, they are flashes of pink cartilage.

David Park was a founding member of the Bay Area Figurative Painters — a movement in California in the 1950s and 1960s to move away from the empirical proclamations of Abstract Expressionism towards a new kind of abstraction based on the figure. The movement is known for its loose embrace of color and form. They are what we call painter’s painters.

Park’s geometries are gestural. Blurry bodies and dark, raucous colors. His compositions are close, stuffed with paint but not with detail. The forms are not concrete — it feels like you could fall through them in a dream. And so you are left hanging onto the edge of the scene, hesitant to push through the surface of the thick paint. Park creates an incredible tension here — between figure and paint, color and form.

Gesture is an interesting word here. It implies the impact of the hand of the artist, an affect imposed on the subjects. But these paintings seem to fill with the gesture of the expressions of the subjects themselves. Compare, for example, how the technique of John Singer Sargent communicates a beautiful face to us. Each is so perfect, you cannot help wonder if all the rich faces Sargent painted were not simply temporarily endowed with beauty by the tip of his Midas brush. Park, on the other hand, sacrifices features and likeness to the motion of a shoulder and the character of a heavy lip.

Park confronts us with the facial gesture of expression — he allows it abstraction and through that abstraction he thickens its power. Deep blue against heavy cream sets up the odd angles of a nose. Dirty whites streak down his face and sweat onto the bright red backdrop behind him, the bright light of sunset. The shadow beneath his face defines and cradles him, as all shadows set up the faces that carry them. That navy has particular strength against the reddish green and the dirty white, with such strength that he seems about to speak.


Image Information: David Park, Couple, 1959
Oil on canvas, 25 1/2 x 47″
Flagg Family Foundation, Monterey CA

John Singer Sargent, Lady Agnew of Lochshaw, 1982-3
Oil on canvas, 49 x 39″
National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh


About Author

Margaret Rew is the gallery director at Howard Yezerski Gallery by day and fledgling writer by night. She graduated from Tufts University in 2011 with a degree in Art History and Political Science. Her daily art blog, artforbreakfast.org, chronicles the story behind, beneath and within one piece of art every day.

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