(Visual) DAVID LIGARE
California-based painter David Ligare creates works rooted in the aesthetic and philosophical ideas of Greco-Roman antiquity. In this interview, he discusses the differences between Realist and Classical art, his views on the present vitality of contemporary art, and why he decided to take a narrative-historical approach with his work.
Interview by Tyler Nesler
Many people would look at your work and probably define you as a Realist, however you define yourself as a Classicist. To the uninitiated, could you give a simple definition of the essential differences between Realism and Classicism in art?
As to Realism, I know that there have been many artists who have painted the world as it existed around them, Vermeer for instance, but I take my definition from Courbet who insisted that art should be about the here and now. He also believed that it should be about the commonplace and the ordinary. His brand of realism also meant the recognition of the reality of paint as a physical entity as opposed to the mere conveyance of images.
Classical art is, on the other hand, particularly interested in the foundational ideas that continue to feed into our culture, say the harmonic numbers of Pythagoras, the idealism of Plato or the monumental curiosity of Aristotle. We need to be reminded to review these ideas from time to time because their relevance always has new meaning and new value and, since Conceptual Art and social progress, we have new ways of looking at ancient ideas.
You've said that much of contemporary art has lost its vitality and has become derivative. Do you think it is possible to look back at the recent historical scope of modern art and draw from it to create a fresh contemporary vitality, much in same the manner that Renaissance artists were revitalized by taking new approaches to Classical art?
There are many contemporary artists who look back to the recent past, say Mark Bradford’s debt to Pollock or Toby. Most of contemporary art is about reiterating concepts and images that are now fully accepted and academic. Cliches and academicisms aside, there are, nevertheless, going to be some wonderful works that will be done. That said, with thousands of artists practicing every ism of modern and contemporary art, I thought in 1978 that it would be more interesting to do something else entirely; to make narrative paintings based on Greco-Roman history.
It’s true that many artists throughout history have, from time to time, reiterated ancient stories in contemporary dress. I decided that it was more challenging to stage stories in historical dress, or undress as the case may be. I was wanting to distance my work from Realism as I have explained it above as well as to be true to the look of the historical period. This has simply not been allowed in modern and contemporary art (although it has been allowed in movies and plays). The only absolute in art is that nothing is absolute.
What are your thoughts on Hyperrealism? Do you think that it is in some ways a revitalization of Realist art? As pure speculation, do you think something like a combination of Hyperrealism and Classicism could work, or are they mutually exclusive?
I think that what is termed Hyperrealism usually refers to works that have been photo-generated. It is also, to my knowledge, always about contemporary life, oftentimes, like Richard Estes or Robert Bechtle, about the irony of treating ordinary street life with extraordinary attention and care. I use photography unapologetically because I prefer to set my “scenes” in very late-in-the-day sunlight. Sunlight has a deep significance for me best explained in the parable of Plato’s Cave but it also signifies the threshold between day and night, life and death that Virgil implied.
What do you think some of the key advantages are of creating unironic work such as yours, especially in these very irony-saturated times?
First of all, there is nothing wrong with irony, it’s a wonderful device which Socrates used to tease out hidden truths. The problem is that irony has become a huge cliche. Years ago David Foster Wallace wrote very pointedly about irony and its effect on art and culture: “Postmodern irony and cynicism becomes an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naïve to all the weary ironists.”
As I have said and written many times, we are, as a society, in need of a renewed desire for knowledge. I suppose that I might be classed (or declassed) as belonging to the “new sincerity.” I strongly believe that art can inspire a rational discourse by way of perceptual analysis and a knowledge of history and philosophy, in other words, the foundations of Western thought; the science of seeing and thinking.
Beauty was described in the Classical world as an ideal rooted in symmetry and mathematical harmony. In this sense would you say that Classical representations of beauty can inspire rational thought? Do you think of your work as a counterbalance to the exploration of irrationality present in much of modern art?
I’m not at all an enemy of modern art, the early avant-gardists were brave pioneers. Indeed, the absurdisms and irrationality of the Dadaists and surrealists made total sense after the horrors of the First World War and I think that Mark Rothko was arguably the greatest painter of the twentieth century. I think that Plato would have approved of abstract art, if it had existed, but he spoke of ‘the true, the just and the beautiful” as inter-linked components of a whole. The wonderful essayist, Elaine Scarry, makes the argument that beauty equals fairness and that fairness encourages justice. The beauty that the ancient Greeks sought was not elitist but rather an abstracted representation of physiognomies meant to represent the everyman or everywoman, rather than the individual — to pull everyone into the potential for human excellence, (Arete).
Would you say that you have a consistent point of view occurring in your paintings? Because of the visual perfection displayed, is the observer essentially something omniscient observing idealized forms, or do you think there is space for more subjective interpretations?
It’s impossible to escape subjectivism entirely but my hope is that my paintings tell stories that open up a dialogue with history and, therefore, some insight into a story or an idea, as an example, my painting called “Landscape for Baucis & Philemon” now in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut. It is possible to see it as a lovely landscape with a ruined temple, but it is an entry into the idea of hospitality and homelessness described by the Roman poet, Ovid.
Large expanses of water with clear ocean horizons exist as a background in many of your paintings. What is your aesthetic and technical attraction to setting so much of your work against these backdrops?
Although I was born near Chicago, my family moved to a beach town near Los Angeles when I was five. I have lived within sight or scent of the sea ever since. Within the format and philosophy there is a studied simplicity (or there should be). High Classicism (400 – 300 BC) embodied a balance between the representational and the abstract. It is best described as being moderate and restrained. The simplicity of the sea is a calm backdrop for whatever I am presenting in the foreground – a figure or a still life. The sea also represents a connective body that reaches out and touches all shores.
I've also gotten curious about the details of the distinctive type of chair on which so many of your figures are seated. Is the design of the curved legs and back chosen for any specific reason, or is it simply a type of chair you've seen and appreciated for its look?
The chair is an ancient design called a Klismos. You can see it on the pots and, especially on the grave marker called the Stele of Hegeso. The bolts holding the legs to the seat are part of the ancient design.
You've talked about how your work doesn't quite fit in with much of contemporary art, but are there any other particular contemporary artists whose work you feel touches on similar historical and narrative Classical approaches? Any fellow travelers?
I’m afraid that I seem not to have any fellow travelers but I have some poet friends who understand the importance of the ancient foundations. In the eighties and nineties I was in many exhibitions called things like Contemporary Classicism and Modern Myths but those “fellow travelers” have either died of done something else. Those kind of exhibitions stopped years ago probably because the critics and art publications ignored them completely. I have friends who make very good representational paintings but they don't tend to explore history. I was very much inspired by the late Sidney Tillim. I had seen his very anachronistic paintings at the Whitney Annual in 1972 and read his brilliant essay, “Notes on Narrative and History Painting,” in Artforum in 1977. He was my greatest guide and inspiration.
It has been said many times that art must be a reflection of its own times. That's fine, but too much staring into the mirror of our own times can be cultural narcissism.
How would you like your place in the history of art to be viewed in the future? Is legacy and influence something you think much about, or would you say that those concerns are fundamentally distractions or too ego-based?
I know enough about art history to know that what is popular in one period can decline or be ignored in another period, and vice versa. I would like to have inspired some critical discussion about the value of serious foundational ideas but that hasn’t happened. The pleasure for me has been the process of investigating those foundational ideas like symmetria or the harmonic integration of diversity. I hope that the future finds some value in the idea of history but I’ll be gone so it won’t matter to me. For now, I’m enjoying the process of constantly learning and being a non-gratuitous contrarian.
What's coming up for you in the near future? Any shows or new works that you would like people to know about?
The landscape where I live has a mythological meaning given to it by the poet Robinson Jeffers and the novelist, John Steinbeck. I will be doing an exhibition next year at the Winfield Gallery in Carmel about the ideas of pastoralism that have come down to us from Theocritus and Virgil. In October of next year I will do an exhibition at Hirschl & Adler Modern in New York.
Main page photo by Gary Smith
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