By NANCI PRICE SCOULAR, mixed media artist living in San Francisco. Nanci is a first year student in the Creative Inquiry, Interdisciplinary Arts MFA Program.
This post was written as an assignment for professor Cindy Shearer’s CIA 7091: MFA Interdisciplinary Arts Workshop. As part of a community of artists working across art perspectives, students in this course get the chance to teach each other about their art form(s), practice, lineage and influences, and are challenged to inquire into the interdisciplinary arts as well as forms new to them.
I came away from a recent visit to the John Berggruen Gallery in downtown San Francisco meditating on much more than the power of a great art show. Memorial exhibitions are usually curated after the artist’s death and the current show at the gallery is no exception. Questions flooded into my head. What work would I choose to complete in my final year? What if I could curate my own memorial exhibition in advance? What criteria would I use to select the artwork and why? If I could leave strict instructions for the very placement of the pieces, what would they be?
The show I just saw, lovingly curated by John and Gretchen Berggruen for their late friend Nathan Oliveira, provides some initial clues. Entitled “Nathan Oliveira, A Memorial Exhibition” it is there until Oct. 22 and is a “must see.”
Nathan Oliveira died on Nov. 13, 2010, in Stanford, Calif., at the age of 81. The prolific Bay Area artist has been a major influence on my own work and I rushed to the John Berggruen Gallery twice last week to pay my respects. I could hardly tear myself way from the 11 paintings that he completed in his final year. Some were older pieces revisited, others completely new. In each one, a solitary figure blends, if not disappears, into the background, a concept not new for Nathan Oliveira.
However, they are new. Signe Mayfield tells us why in her review for Squarecylinder: “… there is a different form of disappearance implied in the most powerful late figures, which are more spirit than corporeal and undoubtedly poised as contemplations of mortality.” She goes on to write: “Oliveira’s finest late paintings are magisterial, poignant and profound. In these works, the artist created his own remarkable tribute—one that elicits a great sense of longing for a more comprehensive view of his work.”
If I knew I was near the end of my life, would my work echo the theme of Oliveira’s last pieces? I imagine they would be interpreted as such. I agree that true impact of this show lies in Mayfield's second comment—these last canvases are so magnificent that even if you had never heard of Nathan Oliveira, you would want to see more of his work. (Incidentally, the show does provide this opportunity on the upper level of the gallery).
Back to my own memorial exhibition. I could show highlights from each successive series? This may be an accurate chronologically, but my earlier work is weaker than my more recent pieces. Or should the pieces to reveal the spiritual discoveries of my past few years? This might segue well into the final work of my life.
Then there is the gallery to consider. Would I want my life’s work to be exclusive to the elite group of people who visit influential galleries? Or would I prefer it accessible to everyone in a more public space? And where? The South Africa of my roots, my adopted country of Canada, my current home in San Francisco?
These are interesting questions and I challenge anyone reading this blog entry to see the Nathan Oliveira show before it ends on Oct. 22 and to contemplate these questions for yourselves. Please post your ideas—I need inspiration too! In the interim, here are more images from the show to whet your appetite.