Natural Drama

Joshua Olivera uses farm materials to depict his Northern California agricultural-belt home

Joshua Olivera grew up in Chico, in Northern California, in the sprawling agricultural belt between the Sierra Nevada and the coastal mountains.

"It's a flood plain," he says, where farmers--many of them, like his grandfather, of Portuguese descent--take advantage of the abundant water to raise thirsty rice, almonds and assorted fruits. "The rivers cross it and flow out to the Pacific. You can see the mountains at either side."

This natural drama finds its way into his mixed-media paintings, now on view at the Gallery at 6th and 6th. Olivera's pictures are abstractions--made of wood, metal, chemical stains and touches of acrylic paints--but they hint at long horizons, mountains in the distance and the complicated interactions of humans and nature.

"Sweetwater Series #5," 2007, could be a view of the Chico flatlands from the air, distilled into a series of vertical stripes. At left, a wavy swathe of muddy brown meanders like a river from top to bottom. It's bounded on each side by speckled greens suggestive of riverbank vegetation. The middle stripe, in golden ochres and greens, conjures up the silt deposited by the overflowing rivers. At its right, a wide oblong is the brown of freshly plowed farmland.

In his use of the landscape as a taking-off point for abstraction, Olivera resembles an earlier California painter, the great Richard Diebenkorn (1922--1993). While Diebenkorn was a virtuoso of oil on canvas--his gorgeous Ocean Park series arranges the light of sun, sea and beach architecture into geometries of color--Olivera restricts himself to decidedly unconventional nonart materials.

According to a story recounted in the catalog essay, Olivera, now 32, started out painting portraits of jazz greats. The easy pictures brought him easy money, until an art professor at Chico State University challenged him to do something less facile. The teacher suggested that the talented young painter create his own stumbling blocks by making art out of anything but art supplies.

Olivera didn't have to look far. His father worked with industrial metals and had a woodshop at home, and the farmers all around him used tools, fertilizers and machines to urge their crops out of the soil. For his art, he would use lumbered wood, and the metal and chemicals that alter the natural rhythms of the land. As gallery owner Lauren Rabb notes, Olivera's materials "repel and fight with each other," underlining the works' subtext of conflict between humans and nature.

The paintings in the new "Sweetwater Series," made in 2006 and 2007, are wildly inventive. Large wood panels serve as the base for all the works, and their grains and markings become part of the composition. Olivera begins by sketching in pencil on the wood, and then, wearing safety glasses, he pours wood stains and assorted other chemicals onto the flat surface. The chemicals bubble up and drip and smear and flake and stain, creating rich textures and poisonous colors that swirl around the natural whorls of the wood.

Occasionally, he mixes thin washes of acrylic color across the top, or empties the coffee pot, or teapot, onto the surface ("Sweetwater #9"). Or he'll nail down squares of metal, or long and narrow strips of metal to divide up sections (as he's done in the Chico aerial view), and bring the flat composition into the third dimension. Here and there, he positions pieces of translucent Mylar on top, to dampen the colors. Finally, he brushes on a layer of resin to give a glossy sheen to the whole painting, and frames it in steel.

Some of the pieces look like pure chemical explosions. "Sweetwater Series #6" has a bilious green mushroom cloud, spreading out sickly over bright golds and reds. In "#7," chemical reactions have left their traces in bubbles of burnt sienna and red, and burnt-looking wood.

"10" is another farm-inspired painting. More brilliantly colored than its Chico companion, it's an exuberant--even jazzy--mix of diagonals and circles and stripes. Their vivid oranges and greens play out a syncopated rhythm on the wood.

Coming closer to earth, a couple of lyrical horizontal works more explicitly evoke the landscape. "2" is a narrow piece, just 18 inches high, that rolls out 5 feet long. Some red-brown mountains crouch along a distant horizon, just above a jarringly blue lake. Above, a gold-orange sky transitions into ochre-blue. A piece of Mylar positioned vertically at the left is like a milky lens: It dims the color, making it like a memory of the past.

"1" is more abstracted, with a couple of separate horizon lines and floating mountain ranges--in brown wood and chemical bubbles--incongruously occupying the same space. A delicate wash of pink slips across the surface diagonally, against pale green. It was this work, Rabb says, that persuaded her to accept Olivera as an artist on the spot, when he walked into the gallery without an appointment. He's the youngest artist on her roster, which is filled mostly with elder artists of American modernism.

Olivera turned up in Tucson a year ago, after three bruising years in New York where, he says, he worked two jobs to pay for a studio in a building filled with 28 other aspiring painters. So far, the Old Pueblo has been kinder. His new paintings take their name from Sweetwater Drive in the Tucson Mountains, where he was invited to stay in a house for the last year. And something of Tucson infuses these paintings.

Tucson is also in a flat valley with mountains at its borders, and the long vistas of the desert and its clear skies somehow merge with Olivera's agricultural visions of Chico. The sharp phthalo blues suggest a longing for water in these dry lands, and a nostalgia for the ocean that once watered these parts. And its brilliant black nights inspired a painting that could be Olivera's "Starry Night," desert style.

"Sweetwater #3" has a brown vertical curve, splotched with chemical white, and a rectangle of glossy blue plunging down from the top. But to the right of these abstractions is a small, distant mountain range, in a muted earth green. Above it, in the endless deep-gray sky, tiny white stars twinkle into infinity.

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