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Nathan Oliveira

The Washington Post, Friday, October 19, 2012, p. C8
by Mark Jenkins

California artist found inspiration in ancestral land,
Nathan Oliveira combines figurative with the abstract

Although he was born, lived and died in the San Francisco Bay area, Nathan Oliveira had significant connections to other places.   He traveled frequently to Portugal, his parents' homeland.  And he has been represented since 1988 by Marsha Mateyka's Dupont Circle gallery, which is showing "Nathan Oliveira: An Exhibition of Paintings, Sculptures, Monotypes & Watercolors."  The work is diverse, but holds together well, linked by its earthy palette and a mastery of line and texture.

Like other noted California artists of his era, Oliveira borrowed techniques from the abstract expressionists, but he rarely produced work that was purely abstract.  The painter and sculptor, who died in 2010, also was influenced by pre-war European art. (Oliveira's most obvious debt is to Alberto Giacometti, whose spindly bronzes presage the ones in this show).  The human figure was a continuing inspiration, as is demonstrated here by three 1989 watercolors from the "Imi" series, rendered from life with grace and spontaneity.  Oliveira sometimes revisited these images as more thickly painted oils, such as 1990's "Untitled Nude."

This selection ranges from two of Oliveira's last paintings, made in 2010, to some of his "site" mixed-media monotypes, executed in the late 1990's (although sometimes embellished later).  The latter, which the artist termed "illustrations" are dream visions of ancient Portugal sparked by the trips through the country.  They're elusive, yet highly detailed: "Portuguese Sites, Douro Valley #1" is a hazy landscape centered on a shepherd's hut, with elaborate pencil work atop the simple image.

The pair of 2010 paintings depict human forms on fields that are similar in hue but distinct in texture.  The eerie "Mask Rising" is an oval with a hint of eyes, floating above a ground whose pattern suggests wood grain.  Even more striking is "Standing Figure, Looking Forward", whose figure is red and heavily painted, in front of a thin, drizzly backdrop that's barely a shade lighter.  To the very end, Oliveira deftly combined figurative and abstract, corporeal and intangible.

Nathan Oliveira: An Exhibition of Paintings, Sculptures, Monotypes & Watercolors, through Oct. 27, at Marsha Mateyka Gallery, 2012 R St., NW 202 328-0088,

Nathan Oliveira
"New Paintings"
September 21 - October 27, 2001

An exhibition of New Paintings by Nathan Oliveira will open the fall season at the Marsha Mateyka Gallery.

The significance of Nathan Oliveira's paintings has been nationally recognized since the early 1960's when his work appeared in a major exhibition in New York, at MoMA, entitled "Recent Painting U.S.A. : the

Figure". He is a member of the well-known Bay Area Figurative group which included - Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff and David Parks. The renowned art historian, Peter Selz, has documented the importance of Nathan Oliveira's contribution in a major new monograph that will be published in March 2002 by the University of California Press.. This book also includes an essay by Joann Moser, Senior Curator, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. A major museum retrospective of the artist's work , organized by the San Jose Museum of Art will travel to five other museums in the United States through 2004.

Nathan Oliveira's contribution to American painting has been a single-minded approach "continuing an inner-directed artistic tradition attached to the human subject [ which ] has persisted throughout his more than forty years as a painter and master printmaker. His art represents an ongoing dialogue with artists from Rembrandt to Goya to Munch, Beckmann, Giacometti and de Kooning - whom he recognizes for their insights into the human condition. The human touch, so often absent in contemporary work, is distinct in Oliveira's art."**

The new paintings on view in the artist's fourth solo exhibition, at the Marsha Mateyka Gallery, display the majors themes in Nathan Oliveira's work. Four mid-size paintings are solitary, existential figures, mysteriously isolated in time and space. Three look out pensively at the viewer while a fourth darts forward in a brilliant burst of energy and light.

Seven small paintings on wood explore the theme of "Sites", which the artist has extensively developed in his monotypes for forty years. In these small "Sites"paintings, the artist uses oil glazes and wet on wet effects to suggest architectural fragments and archaeological remains, rising from the mists and myths of history.

Nathan Oliveira is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and earlier this year, the recipient of a high honor awarded by the government of Portugal, the Commander of the Order of Henry the Navigator. Nathan Oliveira's paintings are in major museums throughout the United States and abroad. For further information, please contact the gallery.

**forthcoming book from the University of California Press," Nathan Oliveira" by Peter Selz with an introduction by Susan Landauer and an Essay by Joann Moser

The Art of Nathan Oliveira. a traveling retrospective exhibition currently on view at the Neuberger Museum of Art in Purchase, New York through September 8, 2002. For further information call the museum at 914.251.6100.

December 2001/January 2002

Nathan Oliveira: "New Paintings"
Marsha Mateyka Gallery
21 September - 27 October 2001
by Rod Smith

Fire? The palette of these pictures, suffused with dirty golden hues - also red, also orange, a bit more red, some purple, just a bit of green or yellow - are suggestive of flame. The show, consisting of works from 2000 and 2001, features five large portraits ( three standing figures and two running ), and seven small abstractions suggestive of landscapes. The abstractions, called Sites, all oil on wood, are limited to what I am calling a dirty golden color. Each site is both that of the site of the painting itself and of the land or seascape it suggests rather than depicts. Having a certain Rorschach effect, one might see in one a crowd in a desert under great clouds, in another a few strange beasts, maybe dinosaurs, yet in another some ships perhaps, in an abstract evocation of Turner's burning skies. The golden glow throws out any number of fantasies. The contrast of this effect with the portraits is quite satisfying.

Although some of the portraits are given "identities" based on their activities - "Climber", "Swimmer", "Runner" - these portraits are not figures in well-defined landscapes or rooms. Yet I have no feeling of lack of definition in looking at these works. The impression is that Oliveira is interested in the human figure not out of context but as its own context. Perhaps due to this lack of contextual markers, Oliveira's portraits have been characterized by a number of critics as having an existential, even angst-ridden, quality, and some of them probably do, but these works don't seem to me to fit this category. Perhaps this is due to a lack of spectacle in the work. By spectacle I mean that one does not feel there is an attempt to convince or veil or coerce or excite any particular reaction in the viewer. These paintings don't strike one so much as share one's presence.

Born in 1928, Oliveira is a Bay Area artist contestedly associated with the West Coast "figurative school", including such artists as Richard Diebenkorn and David Parks and, if given a wider arc, Wayne Thiebaud. He taught for many years at Stanford. Oliveira is somewhat younger than most of the artists associated with the Bay Area figurative school, and has drawn strongly on European modernist influences such a Bacon, Klee, Picasso and Redon. Included in the 1959 Museum of Modern Art show "New Images of Man", Oliveira has long been associated with the "return to the figure" after the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. A major monograph of his work, by Peter Selz, will be published in March 2002 to accompany a large retrospective of his work, which will tour five American museums.

Perhaps the "masterpiece" in the show at Marsha Mateyka Gallery is "Climber". A single figure leans against a wall of rock. This climber is not climbing at the moment. There is a distinct difficulty in describing this work, perhaps because Oliveira conveys no problem with representation, that postmodernist conundrum used to various effect by so many painters.

Representation is simply what is going on here. There is a calm, confident matter-of-factness in this work. The firey hues fill the canvas but not the viewer - it's not fire burning, or smoldering, not in any way threatening. There is no art/nature dichotomy here, perhaps precisely because the work is clearly uninterested in photographic or rhetorical modes of representation. Tradition is made use of - there seems a nod to Picasso or Modigliani in the facial features - but tradition is made to live because the use to which it is being put is both perfect and humble. The result is that Oliveira manages to say what only painting can say - which of course words cannot say. To encounter a painter with the confidence in the medium that Oliveira communicates is a rare joy.


The Washington Post
Thursday, April 16, 1998


"Nathan Oliveira's Pieces of Reality"
by Ferdinand Protzman

Nathan Oliveira began a series of monotypes in 1970, titled "Sites". The California-born artist's idea was that each abstract image would be "an illustration for an unwritten story", with the plot furnished by the viewer. Twenty-eight years later, the tale continues and Oliveira has become a master of the monotype.

The latest prints in the series are being exhibited at Marsha Mateyka Gallery. Their warm colors and archaeological/architectural detail offer a convincing argument that the 70-year-old Oliveria, whose paintings and works on paper can be found in almost every major American Museum, is getting better with age.

"I just keep doing what I've been doing", Oliveira says of the series, which was inspired by landscapes and urban scenes from the San Francisco Bay area where he lives, as well as from his travels abroad. "And I guess I'll keep doing it as long as I'm, able to".

What Oliveira does is take bits and pieces of reality–geographic features, the fall of light, the colors of the rocks, the shape of buildings–from places such as Castelo Rodrigo in Portugal and incorporate them into his own brand of semi-geometric abstract expressionism. The prints, which look very much like watercolor paintings and feature the softly glowing earth tones of the American Southwest, document his emotional response to given site.

Many of the prints have an absorbing ambiguity. It is impossible to tell if things are being built up or torn down, if man and nature are in conflict or harmony. Is a scaffoldlike rectangle at the base of a conical hill the entrance to mine tunnel or an archaeological dig? In "Pier Site 23", the only older work in the show, dating from 1986, there is the appearance of dissolution, of waterlogged planks dissolving in water that blends into the sky. But Oliveira's subtle, ethereal colors also convey the impression that this is nothing to worry about. It is just the way nature works.

Making monotypes is deceptively simple. A design is painted on a sheet of metal or glass and then transferred directly to a sheet of paper, usually producing a single image, although it is possible to make more than one. Making monotypes that have the depth, complexity and the emotional impact of a painting is something only Oliveira and a scant handful of other artists can do.