Thursday, May 24, 2007
I know the gnaw of remorse that visits a sportsman who has battled an enormous fish almost to the boat before the line snaps, and the glimpse of a fin, the outline of a silvery twisting body and the memory of a lost glorious prize is all that remains. I still see clearly a painting I admired some seven or eight years ago…now I reveal the ugly covetousness that accompanies my fine and pure and good love of art. It was at an open studio tour in an unremarkable house in an unassuming neighborhood, in a tidy living room with lots and lots of paintings, some stacked against the couches. I didn’t know the artist, but the work was distinctive and full of content.
“My” painting was of a boat just docked and fish being unloaded, maybe men walking over a plank with the catch curving on their shoulders and, in the foreground, giant tuna glistening on the pier. It was a dark painting, its basic drawing revealed under areas of browns and ochres. My practical side said, “What does fishing have to do with me?” So I left it behind. But it haunted me all night so I returned the next day. Gone.
I met the artist again today and asked him if he remembered that painting. He couldn’t place it. Artists are tricky that way: They don’t stay still.
A good sampling of two years of David Fleming’s prodigious output is exhibited at the Nido Gallery in Moss Landing through the summer. Nido is a sophisticated gallery in that funky little harbor town. Turn toward the water off Highway 1 where massed Harleys are often parked leather-pouch-to-fringed-handlebar at the Whole Enchilada. Follow the gravelly curve along an idyllic view of the fishing fleet and look for a giant fish sculpture and Nido on the left.
Inside is an intriguing combination of imports mixed with furniture by Bay Area wood and metal artists, some cool quilts and rugs, unique jewelry and housewares. Along with these functional pieces are distinctive fine artworks, including small but profound ceramic sculptures by Coeleen Kiebert.
The walls are all David Fleming. About 30 canvases demonstrate the persistence of the artist’s style and the wide scope of his interests. Each subject he tackles seems to call for a different palette and approach, but each work is recognizably his—a base of confident gestural drawing under bold brushwork in a disciplined palette and, usually, a godlike point-of-view. (Fleming is, in fact, very tall.)
The paintings on the balcony lure visitors upstairs. “Parisian Square” is a cityscape with wild intersecting architectural geometries of streets converging at a roundabout. Buildings are vigorously brushed in ochre and olive, with cool crimson shadows and grey skyline in a disciplined wildness of color. The arch of each window is painted in one gutsy, curving stroke; figures are indicated; cars suggested, without being cartoonish. All revolve around a grey twisted monument arising in the foreground.
Nearby, “River Boats” conveys the radiance of a Florence sunset in pinks and turquoise against a cerulean Arno, with bright crimson boats and a riverbank studded with trees aflame in gold.
Convinced that the six or seven European-themed paintings were the result of a recent journey, I asked Fleming if he painted onsite. He looked surprised. “No, I just made them up,” he said, then, as if to comfort me, added, “but I have been there.”
Several large canvases focus on figures in evocative relationships: “Police Work” and “The Deal” are loosely drawn against abstracted fields of color. The compositions flow into a corner, the colors—grey, black, tan and ochre—have a 1940s look accentuated by the rounded truck fenders, rain-coated detectives, square-jawed men serious and busy while running dogs—as dogs will—break the directional impetus.
In the main gallery is an impressive wallful of four large-scale paintings. The most memorable of these, “After Work,” is a bar scene, perhaps in Japan, as all the men have black hair, white shirts and slender bodies. Again, a black drybrush line defines them. The diagonal of figures bellied up to the bar is seen from behind, becoming a pattern of black hair and white shirts and tan or grey jackets against the dark of the bar. At the top of the painting, the bar and bartender are painted in an airy gold-hued light. Tumbling toward the foreground is a crammed arrangement of tiny, round tables surrounded by slumped sports-jacketed men, each in isolation.
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Fleming taught drawing in the design department of San Jose State University for many years. “I start with a vague idea; I give it about five minutes of thought, something to start with, then one thing follows another,” he says. “I used to make sketches but that made the work stiff, so now I just draw on the canvas with a brush. You get so you’re not afraid of it.
“A notion that occurred to me a while ago is that, well, it’s nothing until it’s something. If it’s nothing, it has no value. That frees me up.”
Now I’m thinking about “After Work.” It’ll haunt me.
THE DAVID FLEMING EXHIBITION continues at the Nido Gallery, 7951 Moss Landing Rd. in Moss Landing, through Aug. 20. Call 632-3801 for information or visit nidomosslanding.com.