Recreating the late afternoon sunshine on a tree-tipped Napa precipice, Wayne Thiebaud's Napa Valley Ridge is a masterwork of contemporary American landscape painting. Knowingly painting in the tradition of the early American landscape painters like Albert Bierstadt, Thiebaud uses the extreme Californian topography to his advantage, shrinking the human scale against the awe-inspiring precipices that are unmistakably of this region.
Thiebaud's work is inseparable from its Californian origins. From his sun-filled pastry-shop windows to his San Francisco streets to the Sacramento-area landscapes he began painting in the late 1960's, each of his works are at once vivid exaggerations of west coast style and exercises in realism. Easily identifiable to locals, Thiebaud's landscapes depict pin-point geographies and mappable destinations. First painting his study en situ, and then retiring to his studio to complete the work, one can imagine Thiebaud stationed on the ridge across from this one, and in all likelihood, visit its exact location.
In Napa Valley Ridge the soft, mountainous topography and the rich farming fields that have made the region a culinary destination are unmistakable. Spending time as a child on his grandfather's ranch in southern California, Thiebaud himself had tried his hand at farming and the experience was a major influence on his painting. As the artist would recall: "I plowed, harrowed, dug, and hitched up teams. and planted and harvested alfalfa, potatoes, corn and I loved it it was such a great way to grow up. These paintings have something to do with the love of that and in some ways the idea of replicating the experience." (W. Thiebaud quoted in S. Dalkey, "Wayne Thiebaud's Rural Lanscapes," Wayne Thiebaud, Rural Landscapes, exh. cat., San Francisco, Campbell- Thieubaud Gallery, 1997, n.p).
But while Thiebaud's Napa is undeniably real, the artist cannot resist the influence of art history before him. His wont is to depict the ordinary with a myriad variety of sources, and the result is a singular style of abstract realism which, at the time that his colleagues on the east coast were engrossed in theories ranging from pop to minimalism, Thiebaud pioneered and refined in his own, quiet reactionary way. That Thiebaud was once a cartoonist himself is no surprise. Like his rows of perfect confections, the towering bluffs and the helium-filled clouds of Napa Valley Ridge are romanticized, simplified versions of themselves. Meanwhile the ground, reduced to a bold series of colorful shapes and shadows and compressed into a single tilted plane that squeezes out the sky-- is a study in both impressionist color theory and cubist abstraction.
Theibaud owes debt too, to the great British painters before him; the cloud studies of Constable, and the romantic Joseph Mallard William Turner, who personified the British landscape with an aura of mystery. Finally, his treatment of the trees and the line of the ridge itself is derived from the Persian notion of miniature painting as well as Japanese ink drawings. He devotes his scenery to the depiction of a purified nature that despite being shaped by the markings of man, is placidly devoid of human presence. He has explained: "I tried to steal every kind of idea - Western, Eastern - and the use of everything I could think of-atmospheric perspective, size differences, color difference, overlapping, exaggeration, linear perspective, planal and sequential recessions-and to do that with the kind of vision I talked about before with as many ways of seeing the same picture-clear forms, hazy, squinting, glancing, starting, and even an inner seeing." (S. A. Nash, "Unbalancing Acts," exh. cat., Wayne Thiebaud, a Paintings Retrospective, San Francisco, Fine Arts Museum p.33).
The real and the imagined combined, Thiebaud reproduces not only what can be seen; but also the halo that he senses his subject to project. That the bluffs of Napa Valley Ridge glow at the edges with his signature rainbow of oil paint is fitting. The technique is at once an ingenious means of showing us the refracted light of sun's setting, and on the other hand, a metaphor for describing the unique aura that leads Thiebaud to choose, again and again, an exclusively Californian subject matter.