Throughout his career, Wayne Thiebaud has pursued a painterly investigation of American life through its objects, people, streets and landscapes, always realized in a vibrantly painted but highly controlled manner. Reverent of the tradition of painting, Thiebaud searches for a greater truth through the experience of seeing. Thiebaud's paintings of figures began in 1963, after he had begun to receive acclaim for his bright, straightforward paintings of food. Well known for his lush paintings of still-lifes, Thiebaud approaches his paintings of people with similar formal concern and intensity. The figures are often self-consciously posed with minimal facial expressions against horizontal planes of monochromatic color. Not unlike slices of pie, or an arrangement of condiments, they are presented to the viewer as everyday objects worthy of an extended moment of our gaze.
"I am very fascinated with the concept of stare. Staring fixedly at an object does something to expand time. The more you look at it, the more the edges, the inside and the minute particles quiver. It is almost as if it is loaded and you recognize a kind of stillness which tends to vibrate. When I stroke around the object with a loaded paintbrush it is calculated to echo the presence of that object" (Wayne Thiebaud quoted in Wayne Thiebaud, Exh. Cat., Pasadena Art Museum, pp. 35-36).
Thiebaud has painted the subjects of Five Eating Figures as deliciously as the summertime treats that they are eating while relaxing on the beach. They are each wrapped in a decoratively patterned, candy-colored swimsuit and located on a clean white beach, not unlike sweets on a countertop. Other than the feelings that the viewer may project onto the figures -memories of a white-hot penetrating sun, the cool, creamy taste of ice cream and the pleasurable company of friends- the scene offers neither emotional insight nor a narrative of their relationship to one another. Indeed, their faces are largely turned away from the viewer, if not totally obscured by the sumptuous food that they are consuming. Thiebaud's effort to avoid emotion allows the viewer to stare at the figures as objects, rendered in thickly applied strokes of paint that give them a sculptural presence.
"It is the figure's physical state of being that is Thiebaud's interest. He hopes to avoid any subjective connection between the viewer and the human subject of the painting, so that we may clearly focus on what the figure looks like. This is a difficult task for the artist, since we are used to having figures in paintings do something, or at least reveal some expression that would invite us to try to understand the subject's thoughts or feelings" (Thiebaud Selects Thiebaud: A Forty-Year Survey from Private Collections, Exh. Cat., Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, 1996, p. 4).