In the period that David Park was developing the rich impastoed figurative paintings of his mature style; Americans erstwhile, and soon in California as well, were spellbound with the nearly opposite tenets emerging in the Abstract Expressionist movement.
A former WPA muralist, Park, like other west-coast artists of his generation, had early on held to the representational abstractions of cubism while choosing subjects of a social realist. Diego Rivera especially, whom Park had worked alongside during the great depression, was a major influence on Park's early work and these paintings were strong, humanistic compositions of imagined subjects in social situations. Like the Parisian moderns whom he admired, Park sought isolated instances of the human as a social animal, capturing the particular people and atmosphere of the Bay Area in the early 20th century. But the growing pressure to tow the line of the new New York style, and perhaps the inclusion, in 1946, of (the imposing) Clyfford Still to the faculty at the California School of Arts (where Park taught a class, unfashionably devoted to "Reality in Representation") led Park to temporarily adopt complete abstraction from 1947-9.
The paintings that resulted were disappointing and one might herald Park's bittersweet decision, in the fall of 1949, to drive a truckload of his abstract paintings to a dumpster as a turning point in his career. He assessed the moment honestly: "During that time I was concerned with the big abstract ideals like vitality, energy, profundity... I still hold those ideals today, but I realize that those paintings practically never, even vaguely approximated my achievement of my aims. Quite the opposite: what the paintings told me was that I was a hard-working guy who was trying to be important"(quoted in R. Armstrong, David Park, exh.cat Whitney Museum of Art, 1988, p. 30).
Yet the cause had not been lost. Though humbled, he was also fortified in his aims to continue with the figurative project, keeping the most important lessons of expressionism with him. The paintings that followed, including Figures in Landscape of 1953, would be the first achievements of the artists' mature style. As art historian Richard Armstrong has noted: "In abandoning abstraction he retained a gestural style: he spent the next ten years propelled by a desire to incorporate the freedom of gestural painting into incontestably figurative work." (ibid, p.11). Taking lessons from the expressionists, but also those of his friends Richard Diebenkorn, Paul Wonner, and Elmer Bischoff, Park lost his mannerist style and produced paintings that are looser. Shaking too, the allegory implicit in many of his earlier pieces, Park became confident enough to rely on the the paintings' composition to set emotional timbre. Armstrong writes that Park's paintings of this period were "more ambitious, psychologically charged conceptions, often involving couples or groups. In these works, intimacy and its absence are the underlying themes" (ibid, p. 37).
Inventive compositions from this era that combine periferal views with panoramics of distinct all-American landscapes endorse Park's desire to include both the introspection of abstract expresssionism with the documentary aims of realism. The lunch-counter sit-ins and the beginnings of a civil rights movement may have been on Park's mind, and the close-cropped proximity of the two men in Figures in Landscape, suggests a strong relationship that transcends race and class. As Armstrong points out, "He employs a cropped magnification of the figures closest to the picture plane, constructing the narrative in relation to their dominant positions." (p. 34).
The ingenious condensing effect is one that Armstrong attributes partially to Park's move to a smaller apartment after the loss of his house to a landslide and his teaching position to his ideals. For an artist who worked largely from memory but may have taken the spatial relations around him as a reference, the confined working space, actually his living room, would have largely effected his compositions. Again, for Park, the loss was bittersweet. It clairfied Park's aims to capture the minutiae of human expression, while keeping with the social project Rivera had inspired in him. Whatever the case, Figures in Landscape is a wonderful testament to Park's unwavering belief, despite unlikely circumstances (both critical and personal) in the restorative powers of representational painting.