An Interview from the Catalog for the exhibition, Aparchai at the Hackett Freedman Gallery, San Francisco, CA, 2007
DAVID RUSH: In the introduction to the exhibition catalog, The Not -So-Still Life, Susan Landauer wrote that "With still life's fondness for deception, the genre naturally lends itself to inquiries into the nature of language and simulacra" but that California still lifes have a "tendency to prioritize personal experience over critical theory." As a Californian, how personal are the paintings you make?
DAVID LIGARE: I think that I'm very Californian in the character of the light that I use, but I made a decision very early on in my project to try to be an invisible presence in my work. Personal expression and having a personal style are very important to many artists but I've been much more interested in how we see - what I call perceptual analysis - and the potential meanings of the objects that I've depicted. In the altar-like space I've used, everything takes on a heightened importance and I feel a certain responsibility toward the visual integrity of the objects I present. Things look the way they do for a reason and it fascinates me to try to understand and to recreate both the logic of the appearance and the intrinsic meaning of the objects.
DR: You've been using the same altar/enclosure for your still life paintings for a long time now, how did you arrive at this format?
DL: Nearly all still life paintings down through history have a neutral, often dark, background. I wanted to retain this neutral background but I also wanted it to be a real space so that I could show the shadows cast by the objects themselves. Since I made a decision to use only direct sunlight, I had to create a space where the light could enter logically, so I opened up the enclosure on the right and above. I also felt that it was important to give the viewer a visual escape to the horizon. By way of contrast, you have both the immediate foreground and the farthest distance. Once I established this format I have used it in exactly the same proportions ever since. What has changed, of course, are the presentations themselves and also, to some degree, my attitude about the enclosure itself.
DR: How has your attitude changed?
DL: When I built the enclosure in 1987 I wanted to present objects that reflected the balance between opposing forces, say, candles and a sponge representing fire & water, or a rock and a bird's wing representing earth & sky The balance of opposites is the essence of Classicism. And then, too, there was the object and its shadow. Occasionally the compositions would be more elaborate like my Still Life with Polykletian Head, (The kanon), 1995, which was a visual essay about the Greek sculptor Polykleitos and his ideas about proportion, measure and harmonic integration.
DR: We've talked about these things before in the context of your figure and architecture paintings but how do they apply to the still lifes?
DL: Well, I was trying to get to the point about my change of attitude but for me so much of this has been a learning process. If physical action can be part of the condition in the making of an expressionist painting or a performance piece, then, for me, that action is study. I began thinking about the still life, not just as interactions between the objects and the shadows, but as little essays on wholeness, that is, every question within the enclosure is answered; where the light, the shadows and the reflections are all coming from, where the horizon line is, even what time of day it is, based on the shadows in relation to that horizon. With the reflecting surfaces of glass it's also possible to read the space behind the viewer. There are no ambiguities and I think that that makes for the possibility of a heightened sense of stillness based on this attempt at completeness.
DR: And yet, as you say, there has been movement and change.
DL: Yes, change especially as I learned more through reading and looking at historical works. You know, no matter how carefully I have painted the objects and the light and so on, and no matter how much people want to say that this is "realism", The fact is that this is aworld set apart from the real world - you could even call it metaphysical. The greater the depictive quality of the image is and without the distraction of expressive paint-handling or style, the greater the tension between the viewer and that un-enterable "sacred" space. It's not a portrait of reality or a deception, It's what's been called a "critical reconstruction."
DR: And so this 'sacred space' begins to take over your purely pragmatic enclosure?
DL: Yes. I'm not a religious person at all but, for me, this line of thinking caused me to begin a deeper investigation into the origins of still life painting. It's almost always ignored, but the earliest still lifes were Egyptian. They were images of tables piled with provisions for the afterlife. Nearly all of the texts on still life, however, ascribe its origins to xenia or depictions of food for guests in ancient Greece. Xenia paintings represented the idea of generosity and hospitality in Rome as well. But I noticed that not all of these early paintings were of imminently edible foodstuffs. For instance, the very famous painting of peaches from Herculaneum, is clearly not a xenia because the peaches are green. Other images show food in conjunction with live cockerels. These caused me to think of roadside shrines that I had seen in Nepal where food offerings are still left and chickens wander by and peck at them. I had read a fair amount about Greek art but I'd never read specifically about Greek Religion. What I discovered was that it was extremely common to leave offerings at shrines and altars just as I had seen in Nepal. Usually these were food-gifts to the gods in thanks for a successful harvest or, really, any successful undertaking. I also learned that sometimes these offerings; golden sheaves of wheat, ceramic fruit or, indeed, paintings, could all be stand-ins for the real thing. In ancient times there was a profound belief that skillfully produced objects or paintings could possess transmutable properties. For the ancients, these works had magical properties. They became the things they depicted.
DR: And so you have made paintings based on this idea?
DL: Yes, I call them Aparchai which was the Greek word for first-fruit offerings. But going back to your question about how my attitude has changed, now it seems that whatever I paint into my altar-like space becomes heightened for me in a way that it wasn't quite before. And in these new paintings there's a kind of compacted or reduced experience if that makes any sense.
DR: By reduction do you mean less color? Some of these paintings seem to be less about local color and more about light to me.
DL: Of course my paintings have always been about light - about sunlight. Really and truly - we talked about style - my style is sunlight. It may be from growing up at the beach in Southern California or from having visited Greece at an early age. But, of course, sunlight has always been a symbol of radical knowledge. In his famous allegory about the cave, Plato calls the sun "the guardian of everything in the visible world." I've painted candles several times and each time I've been reminded of the contrast between the fire-lit illusions in Plato's cave and how they, as well as my burning candles, are surpassed by the clear sunlight of the upper world. Diffused light, say, from a window or an electric light has a conditional aspect to it. Sunlight is specific. But the larger meaning of the allegory is that we see what we know. For me, sunlight - especially late afternoon sunlight - is simply the most beautiful source of illumination. That period of liminal time, just before sunset, has long been called the "the golden hour" for its beauty as well as its metaphorical richness.
DR: You mention Plato. As a Classicist, how do you justify his disdain for imitation? As I understand it, he would cast it out of his ideal city!
DL: Plato's argument against imitation in painting and poetry is very complex. I would argue, first, that Plato is not against representation, per se, he is against realism - the depiction of the ordinary and the commonplace. That said, the artist who makes a critical reconstruction of reality is not necessarily deceiving the eye but instead revealing the nature of reality rather than reality itself. He or she is practicing the art of perceptual analysis - that is, looking carefully at something, analyzing why it looks the way that it does and then recreating it critically. And the key here is that we see what we know. Both art and nature are languages and, unless we understand their vocabularies, our knowledge of them is limited.
DR: But, continuing with Plato, doesn't he cast doubt on anyone who claims to possess this kind of knowledge?
DL: To know something is not the same as knowing everything, although I sometimes tell students that they should know everything! Plato ridicules the person who "claims" to have all knowledge but he reveres the person who is searching for knowledge. There's a big difference. Understanding the physical world is knowledge-based, not belief-based. It's a matter of building up our perceptual abilities, of analyzing everything we see and hear and attempting to make sense of them by way of learning and experience.
A painting, like a text, can be a conceptual or a philosophical statement. It can appear out of or disappear into its own meaning. As a classicist I believe that it's important to try to understand and to recreate nature in a carefully controlled, almost scientific way. History, especially Greek history, is a struggle to understand the deepest complexities of human perceptions and actions. There is always the attempt to clarify. but I also believe in looking at everything that claims to be art, which today might be anything at all, from the high to the low. I think that art can be like the Delphic Oracle, no matter what form it takes, or how absurd it seems to be, there's always the possibility of a profound revelation.