Wiegand Gallery

College of Notre Dame, Belmont, CA



From the Figurative Tradition, Theophilus Brown and Paul Wonner, Selected Paintings: 1954 - 1999


A new exhibit at the Wiegand Gallery on the College of Notre Dame campus in Belmont, From the Figurative Tradition, Theophilus Brown and Paul Wonner, Selected Paintings: 1954 - 1999, may be seen from October 19 through December 11, 1999. (left: Brown and Wonner, photo: Ira Schrank)

Beginning with work from the 1950s and including current work, this show celebrates the partnership of Theophilus Brown and Paul Wonner and their lifelong involvement with representational painting. Though Brown and Wonner both began their careers when Abstract Expressionism was exerting a strong influence and later participated in the Bay Area Figurative Movement, they have each pursued a distinct path in their work. Regardless of how their paths have diverged in terms of their approach to the subjects of their paintings, Brown and Wonner have continued to find inspiration in painting the people and objects in the world around them.

The world that Brown and Wonner have created, in their art and in their lives, in the words of Whitney Chadwick,"serves as a way of teasing out one aspect of Brown's and Wonner's enduring relationship as fellow artists, friends, and significant others: that is their shared belief that no matter how difficult life is in the world outside, there are always wonderful things to appreciate, things with meaning and significance."


"Theophilus Brown and Paul Wonner: Figuring It Out"

Excerpts from exhibition catalogue essay by Whitney Chadwick

Brown and Wonner met in 1952 while attending graduate school in painting at the University of California in Berkeley. They would mature as artists in a climate of artistic ferment, experimentation, and idealism, much of it centered around the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute). There, several young painters, energized by David Park's rejection of abstraction in 1950, laid the groundwork for what became the first postwar modern movement to bring Northern California artists to national attention. Although Brown and Wonner later traveled widely and relocated frequently to take on temporary teaching positions, San Francisco would remain at the center of their lives together, and the group of artists with whom they first connected in the 1950s would remain lifelong friends and, in several cases, vital sources of artistic dialogue.


While Brown's early paintings of athletes relied on the structural devices, large generalized shapes, and flat tones of French modernism, the examples included in the current exhibition also indicate his debt to Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning. Wonner's early works were more directly influenced by Abstract Expressionism, which he had absorbed during five years in New York following the end of World War II... Applying paint in bold, quick brushstrokes, [Brown] relied on strong drawing and formal ordering to evoke athletes' physicality and strength. These early paintings initiated what would later become a major theme for him and, though to a lesser degree, for Wonner: the representation of the male body. (left: Theophilus Brown, Muscatine Diver, 1962-63, oil on canvas, 60 x 40 inches, Collection of the Oakland Museum)


Brown and Wonner shared with the other Bay Area Figurative Painters an attitude toward the practice of painting that included isolating figures, singly or in small groups, in landscapes, studios, or domestic interiors or placing them against more indeterminate fields of color. Frequently there is a visual tension and ambiguity between figures and environment brought about through compositional structure, planar organization of space, and painterly manipulation of surfaces...they embraced Impressionism's break with rigid hierarchies of public and private space, a shift of focus that was subsequently elaborated in the works of twentieth-century modernists like Bonnard and Matisse, both of whom moved easily between studio, garden, and domestic interior in their search for subjects.

...While they continued to use the female figure, their repositioning of masculinity within the domestic environment in many portraits and studies of male friends and models represents, for its time, a radical departure from the conventions of a heterosexually inscribed pictorial world.


By the early 1970s, Wonner was deeply involved in painting still lifes, paying particularly close attention to the seventeenth-century Vanitas or pictorial meditations on the transitoriness of life...in 1976...Wonner began the series of large still lifes that continue to the present. Paintings like...Flowers and Threatening Sky (second version) (1992) combine the personal (all incorporate objects and images drawn from his domestic environment) and the abstract (the compositions are conceptually rather than visually derived and Wonner never works from traditional studio set-ups, preferring instead to meticulously compose his paintings object by object).

...More recently, Brown has turned again to the figure in a series of small acrylic portraits of male friends and artists' models...all are characterized...by a keen eye for the individualized gesture and pose. Both evocative and carefully observed, these small paintings have a freshness and.spontaneity that can only be distilled from years of life drawing. (right: Paul Wonner, Dutch Still Life with Piece of Pie and Piece of Cheese, 1977-81, acrylic on canvas, 70 x 48 inches, Collection of John and Gretchen Berggruen)

The gallery will be closed Friday and Saturday, October 22 and 23, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, November 25-27, and Wednesday, December 8.

Read more about the Wiegand Gallery at College of Notre Dame in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 10/26/10

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