Corey Oada standing in front of Wayne Thiebaud's Water City mural
Wayne Thiebaud’s Water City mosaic (1959) at SMUD Headquarters building, Sacramento (2020).

Wayne Thiebaud was almost certainly the first contemporary artist of whom I was aware. I was four or five years old when my mother brought me to the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) headquarters to show me the building’s exterior mosaic, which depicts the city’s skyline and its reflection in the river. I imagine we made the excursion because my mother knew that even at that young age, all I wanted to do was draw and look at art. The experience must have made an impression, because I not only remember her telling me that the artist lived nearby, but also that the tiles came all the way from Italy.

In the late 1950s, when Thiebaud was commissioned by some savvy individual to do the mural, he was teaching at Sacramento City College. Ten years later, when I saw it for the first time, he was at UC Davis and a famous artist. By the late 70s/early 80s, when I was a teenager, I had become fairly well-versed in his career and as a young adult, I saw large shows of his work in Sacramento and San Francisco. I must admit it was a bit of a thrill when he attended the reception for one of my early shows. I didn’t see him, but as the evening was winding down, the gallery owner excitedly showed me the guestbook, and there was his name, alongside his signature heart.

To commemorate Thiebaud’s 100th birthday, the Crocker Art Museum will be presenting a show titled Wayne Thiebaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings, which opens in October. It’ll be an opportunity to view a good representative sample of his work, much of it apparently previously unseen, together in one space. I wish my five-year-old self were here to see it. I’m sure my current self will enjoy it, as well.

Corey's notebooks

I’m not one for making resolutions, but I do know that I’ll be painting a lot in the coming months, as I have a show scheduled at Archival Gallery in September. I’ll be showing paintings alongside work by Laureen Landau, which I really couldn’t be looking forward to more.

The last few years, I’ve been working in a different manner. From the time I first started painting until recently, I made detailed graphite or ink studies for my work. There came a time when although I was making good paintings that I liked, they weren’t the paintings I wanted to make. I needed a change. It’s important to me that my finished work not come too easily, so I stopped keeping a sketchbook and replaced it with a notebook. I write ideas and notes for pieces, occasionally doing a vague thumbnail sketch. These notes may include compositional ideas, a list of collage material to compile, prospective titles, concepts to research, reference points, et al. It’s a more open-ended process than I’m used to , and it’s been challenging and engaging in a way that painting hasn’t been for some time.

I’ve also recently done some mixed-media construction work, of which I’ve done very little in the past. Artistically, this put me in foreign territory, which I enjoyed. Besides being satisfying in themselves, these pieces have opened up possibilities for my painting.

I have confidence in my ability to draw and to paint, so my artistic ambitions lie beyond that. My goal is to make work that is compelling on multiple levels. Of course, I want my paintings to work in purely formal/aesthetic terms. In addition, although I generally play it pretty close to the chest as to what my work is “about” – much of my symbolism being personal – the work should elicit some response: emotional, intellectual, physical. I hope it’s apparent that the work is thoughtful and conceptually layered, even if the viewer is very unlikely to decode my singular vocabulary.

So, in 2020, I will present a strong show of work with which I am satisfied not only as a viewer, but as the painter. I’ll see you in September, after which I’ll resolve to get some sleep.

 

A few weeks ago, I saw cellist Jeffrey Zeigler perform a program titled The Sound of Science. For each of the eight pieces, each composer worked with or was inspired by a particular scientist. It was an extraordinary evening, an excursion into the concepts of exploration and discovery in science as well as music.

Science is an abiding interest of mine. Anatomy, of course, is an integral part of dealing with the figure, one of my main artistic concerns. This fascination also accounts for the employment of x-rays and other medical imaging, allowing me a broader figurative palette from which to draw.

Going outward instead of inward, space exploration has captivated me since I was very young. I’ve read literally dozens of books on the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo missions, plus many astronaut biographies and autobiographies. Although I have referenced the space race in a straightforward manner, as in the mixed media construction Giant, a tribute to Neil Armstrong, its affect on my work is generally more oblique. The photos of the moon taken by the Apollo astronauts are haunting and beautiful, and I have often tried to capture that feeling.

My vocabulary doesn’t come only from art. Ideas from other disciplines contribute to my overall perspective, strengthening or expanding those views already in place. The endeavor to see previously overlooked connections is something shared by artists and scientists.

“Feed your head.” – Grace Slick

 

A painting by Corey Okada and Laureen Landau
Examination of a Dream (2013). Mixed media on paper, 27″ x 37″.

My piece, Examination of a Dream, recently sold at the 38th Annual KVIE Art Auction. Actually, the piece isn’t entirely mine; part of it was done by the late Laureen Landau, a friend and local (art) hero.

I am not, by nature, a collaboratively-minded artist; however, I couldn’t pass on the opportunity when, for a show titled The Last Collaboration of Laureen Landau, I was given two abstract/non-objective grounds – unfinished work from Laureen’s studio – to employ in any manner I wished. For this piece, I re-worked the ground and added the lamp; the basic layout, including the color grid, is Laureen’s.

Although this isn’t a true collaboration, in that we never actually worked together, I believe I created a cohesive painting in which both our hands, both our sensibilities, are evident.

Laureen was a thoughtful and elegant conversationalist, and we often talked about art. I never sat in on any of her classes, but judging from those interactions, I am sure she was an exceptional teacher. I miss those times we shared, as I miss all those paintings she never had the chance to complete. I hope I did her proud.

Corey Okada visits the Warhol exhibit at SFMOMA
At Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again, SFMOMA (2019).

This past summer, I twice saw Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again at the SFMOMA. Despite the negative and sometimes downright nasty press Warhol still sometimes receives, the repercussions from his work continue to run rampant through contemporary art, over 30 years after his death in 1987.

Roy Lichtenstein once said that, upon seeing Warhol’s silkscreen paintings in the early 1960s, he felt very old-fashioned. This from a guy whose work was so aggressively avant that Life Magazine once asked “Is He the Worst Artist in the U.S.?” Even now, Warhol’s oeuvre makes still-wet paintings by Young Turks seem old-fashioned. 

Warhol has been a favorite of mine since I was a teenager, and although it may not be readily apparent, he and other Pop artists have had a big impact on how I approach my own work. I admire his sharp eye and conceptually-minded bent. He also remained artistically adventurous until the end, when he produced a series of self-portraits which I consider to be among the most powerful ever made. We haven’t seen the last of his wide-reaching influence – not only on art, but on culture in general.

“The mystery was gone but the amazement was just starting.” – Andy Warhol