In the autumn of 1994, I made a trip to see an Egon Schiele retrospective at the San Diego Museum of Art; it was a rare opportunity to view a sizable body of his work without going to his native Austria. The previous comprehensive solo show to come to the United States took place in 1960, so I was very much looking forward to seeing this one.

Schiele became one of my favorite artists when, in my teens, I discovered his work through my studies of turn-of-the-century Vienna. The art of Gustav Klimt had piqued my interest in the subject, which I found as fascinating as sixties Swinging London or seventies Max’s/Mercer Arts Center/CBGB NYC. Vienna at that time was a hotbed of activity in many areas, including, most importantly for me, the visual arts. Austrian Expressionism, even its rawest examples, had a grace not present in its German counterpart, thus it was more aligned with my sensibility. This approach was due to the influence of Klimt and the Secession group, which emphasized design, ornamentation, and a cross-pollination among disciplines.

The Schiele exhibition was comprised of perhaps a dozen paintings and over sixty works on paper – drawings, gouaches, and watercolors. Although Schiele was an accomplished and ambitious painter, more notably he was one of the 20th century’s preeminent draftsmen, and that is where the strength of his oeuvre lies. Untethered from the need to make a statement, his works on paper are more direct and immediate in their expression. With the actual work, one can see what a confident hand Schiele had – next to no erasing and very little redrawing is evident; his surety was staggering. His quality of line gave the whole an elegant framework while his use of color and masterful sense of composition, especially in the employment of negative space, heightened the intensity of his psychologically and sexually charged imagery. In the years since I saw this show, my appreciation of Schiele’s paintings and drawings has not waned; if anything, it has grown – especially for his later, more naturalistic output.

Schiele had only a little over a decade to produce his life’s work. The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed over twenty million people worldwide; Egon Schiele died on October 31, three days after Edith, his pregnant wife, succumbed to the same disease. He was twenty-eight years old.

Like a lot of people, I haven’t been leaving home much the last two or three months. Fortunately, I have had things to keep myself busy, not the least of which has been working on a show (now tentatively scheduled for November 2020). I also have no lack of books and music lying around; I can watch Citizen Kane, Don’t Look Back, or Rear Window; and there’s always Jeopardy! and reruns of Murphy Brown.

Theoretically, it’s been ideal for me – I’m at home, have a lot of time to paint and next to no obligations outside my four walls. However, for someone who even under normal circumstances spends a lot of time at home, I do miss going out. Different environments allow my mind to go in different directions; I’m often writing notes for prospective paintings while at a café or the laundromat, ideas often coalesce while I’m just walking around. As much as my painting reflects my interior life, the world outside also contributes to how I work. So, while I’ve had more time to paint, my process has been disrupted. Add this to the stress and general sense of dread I’ve felt during this time – I wouldn’t say I’ve been depressed, but I haven’t been sleeping well, an emotional toll has definitely been taken – and I’ve probably not done much more work than I would have ordinarily, despite having had quite a bit more time to do it.

Often, when I start working on a show, people will ask if I have a theme. I never do, although after I’ve finished several pieces, a through line which links at least some of the work will often present itself. This has not happened – I believe my thought process has been more disjointed, less fluid; as a result, working on one piece hasn’t led directly to an idea for another, as is usually the case.

What affect this will have on the finished show has yet to be seen. We’ll find out together.

In November 2014, I had plans to go to San Francisco to see a show of skulls at the California Academy of Sciences. As an afterthought, I checked other SF museums for shows I might also want to see while I was there, and found a retrospective called Keith Haring: The Political Line had just opened at the de Young. I bought a ticket, thinking it would be a nice diversion, a fun show.

When Keith Haring came to prominence in the early 1980s, I really didn’t pay too much attention. I was aware of him, of course, and thought his baby, dog, flying saucer, and batman imagery was playful and amusing, but lightweight. I think the fact that it reproduces so well – I had certainly seen enough of it on buttons, t-shirts, greeting cards, refrigerator magnets, et al. – made me think I knew, and contributed to my reading of, his work. The day I saw The Political Line, I realized how wrong I had been.

The show was startling; I was taken aback by how powerful it was. Reproductions of Haring’s art, like those of Roy Lichtenstein’s, look great but can’t convey the formal aspects which give the works much of their strength. Seeing the actual paintings made me realize how important scale is in Haring’s work, and allowed me to see them as not just cartoons – to recognize their abstract qualities. His bold, confident stroke frequently possesses as much visual weight as the object it delineates. He also often utilized an all-over compositional style and created tension by minimizing the distinction between the figure and the ground until they became almost interchangeable. The push-pull results of these components contribute to his work’s signature pulsating energy.

The Political Line’s focus also made clear the gravitas of Haring’s oeuvre, which I had previously not considered. His unwavering dedication to his sociopolitical concerns continues to inspire. Drug addiction, nuclear proliferation, children’s issues, apartheid, and AIDS (another public health crisis exacerbated by presidential ignorance, ineptitude, and inaction) were some of the causes he took on in his work. If his “radiant child” image symbolizes hope, we could use Keith Haring now. We could use his hope and his activism and his drive, and we could use his anger.

Keith Haring would have turned 62 today; he died on February 16, 1990 of AIDS-related complications. He was 31 years old.

All artwork © The Keith Haring Foundation

Ross Bleckner is a contemporary New York artist whose work I’ve admired since 1983. I remember seeing a magazine article (I think it was in Art in America) about his Weather series and being intrigued by what I saw – abstract quasi-landscape meditations on light and shadow. A few years later, I read about his dark, obscured interiors with chandeliers, urns, and flowers, which evoked loss and mourning in the age of the AIDS crisis. It was these paintings which convinced me Bleckner was someone I should watch, and I have been following his career since then.

Over the years, stripes, domes, birds, dots, flowers, and other imagery have appeared and re-appeared in Bleckner’s work, which straddles the representational/non-representational line. In the late 1990s, he started a series of Cell paintings which are simultaneously realist and completely abstract. Although he has referenced many different styles and movements during his career, he has never fit into any one box – he is on his own path. I’ve only seen a handful of his actual pieces, but he is an artist I hold in very high esteem.

The last several weeks, I’ve thought about Bleckner often, as every time I see an image of the coronavirus, it reminds me of his Cell paintings, which he started the year his father died of cancer. Bleckner is known for the elegiac feel of much of his work; it all seems to fit.

During this trying time, please stay home, be good to each other, be safe, and, as your mother told you, wash your hands. This too shall pass. I hope.

Deborah Oropallo and Andy Rappaport: still (detail) from FLOOD (2019). Video installation.

I recently saw FLOOD, a video installation by Deborah Oropallo and Andy Rappaport at the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco. Oropallo is one of my favorite contemporary artists; I’ve been following her work since the early 1990s, when her paintings were actually made of oil on canvas. However, even then she was not a traditional painter – her conceptual bent has always been strong, and she used silkscreens, rollers, and other tools in lieu of brushes. Her work has continually evolved, building on previous ideas while taking in new techniques and technologies. Since 2000, she has been utilizing digital imagery, which she manipulates on a computer and often works into on the canvas or paper itself. In 2017, she began collaborating with Rappaport on video projects which retain her painterly aesthetic without, obviously, being made with any paint at all.

Oropallo and Rappaport have been working with the theme of climate change and its impact on our population. Between 1995 and 2015, 2.3 billion people worldwide were affected by flooding. In this incarnation, FLOOD consists of three video screens, set in line horizontally, showing still images culled from internet news sources. Flooded streets appear and are gradually overlapped by photos of people in the deluge. The images continue to accumulate, the waters continue to rise, and the frame fills with more and more people. Rappaport’s score builds along with the images, from the musique concrète sounds of water to a pulsing beat – the impact of the whole is hypnotic, poignant, and affecting – a poetic call to action.

I’m not very learned re video art, but, as always, Oropallo excels here. The layering/montaging in the video is an extension of what she does so brilliantly in her paintings, expanded to epic proportions through the added dimension of time. Over the course of about 20 minutes, hundreds of individual images are seen. In this age, when information is so quickly forgotten in favor the next new story, to spend that amount of time contemplating a single subject is nothing short of revolutionary.

FLOOD will be on view through Saturday, March 28 – spare no pains to see it.

Corey Oada standing in front of Wayne Thiebaud's Water City mural
With 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.

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 rough 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
Corey Okada and Laureen Landau: Examination of a Dream (2013). Mixed media on paper, 27″ x 37″. SOLD.

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