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Darren Waterston, “A Life in Fields”

By DeWitt Cheng

Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco, California
Exhibition continues through June 13, 2024

May 18, 2024

“I love the interchange between the beautiful and the monstrous.”
— Darren Waterston

Darren Waterston, “The Gathering,” 2024, oil on wood panel, 60 x 72”. All images courtesy of Berggruen Gallery, San Francisco

I recently happened on a couple of film versions of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel, “The Moon and Sixpence,” a fictionalized biography of an artist patterned on Paul Gauguin. Maugham recounts the transformation of an apparently ordinary English stockbroker named Charles Strickland (played laconically by George Sanders in 1942 and passionately by Laurence Olivier in 1959) who abruptly abandons his family to paint — and freeze and starve — in a Paris garret. A monomaniacal genius willing to sacrifice himself and others to his artistic vision, Strickland eventually dies in Tahiti, blind and leprous. His young native wife fulfills her promise to him to burn down the hut in which hangs his crowning masterpiece, just as his paintings achieve renown back in benighted London.
The tone of civilized, sympathetic irony informing Maugham’s tale, and its contrast of artistic suffering and posthumous fame and immortality, might appeal to Darren Waterston, a Bay Area artist now living in New York. His career has been accorded a success that the sardonic, cynical Strickland/Gauguin might (or might not) envy. Waterston’s talent was recognized almost immediately after his graduation from art school, and his career has flourished for thirty-five years. His virtuosic paintings of misty, mystical landscapes — perhaps better described as mindscapes — populated by ambiguous transparent forms, rising, floating, fluttering and sinking amid clouds, swirls, drips, and vermicular coils of brushstrokes, are widely admired for their stunning fusion of aesthetic ambition, poetic feeling, and intellectual investigation.
Darren Waterston, “Hillside,” 2024, oil on wood panel, 48 x 36”

Nothing if not eclectic, Waterston has embraced history and culture as have few contemporary artists, as subjects for subjective interpretation; yet despite the variety of subtexts, the work remains consistent. In a 2009 show in San Francisco, the artist interpreted legends of St. Francis of Assisi as recorded by his followers. More recently, Waterston has created commemorative yet skeptical paintings and installations of transcendent feeling for a largely secular art audience.

“Splendid Grief: The Afterlife of Leland Stanford Jr.” (2009) at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center examined the early death of the Stanford scion that led to the university’s founding. Several years later, “Filthy Lucre” (2014) looked at the art-and-money nexus by mordantly re-imagining James McNeill Whistler’s ornate “Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room” (1876) as a decayed ruin, simultaneously grotesque and beautiful. Commissioned by the British shipping tycoon Frederick Leyland, it was the cause of a famous financial feud between artist and patron. Represented by Waterston as gilded dueling peacocks, the installation was commissioned by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, later exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and, in a fitting finale, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, not far from Leyland’s Kensington mansion. Whistler’s 1879 revenge painting, “The Gold Scab: Eruption in Filthy Lucre (The Creditor),” depicts Leyland as a maniacal human-peacock hybrid. The painting was acquired by the San Francisco art patron, “Big Alma” de Bretteville Spreckels, who founded the Palace of the Legion of Honor, where it now resides.

Darren Waterston, “Transfiguration,” 2024, oil on wood panel, 60 x 72”

Waterston’s alluring, dreamlike paintings, shaped by the Symbolism of Odilon Redon, the Surrealism of Max Ernst, and the artist’s sheer mastery of painterly effects, can be enjoyed, context-free, as a poetic alternate reality. In a recent gallery Q&A, the artist described the thirty-plus landscapes on view, in oil on wooden panel and watercolor and gouache on rag paper (all created during the past five months), as fields of “metaphysical and philosophical space” infusing “natural phenomena” with “internal or psychological meaning.” However, for all of the ideas — I would say, Big Ideas — and ambition informing and driving his work, Waterston remains down to earth and almost self-deprecating about the vagaries of the creative process, respecting “misfires and mishaps,” and embracing the uncertainties of intuition: “I never know where I’m going to land … I never feel in command … How is it I am still standing here [at the easel] after so many years?”
Darren Waterston, “Sonata Form,” 2024, oil on wood panel, 48 x 36”

The exhibition’s title, “A Life in Fields,” sheds some light on where the artist has landed, or currently stands. ‘Fields’ suggests nature and plein-air painting, but it also refers to the Color Field painting developed in the 1940s by Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still, and championed by the critic Clement Greenberg. This latter mode aimed at conveying sublime and sometimes tragic mythic content and emotion abstractly, in pure painterly terms, without the allegorical figures and mythology of the past.

Darren Waterston, “Chimera (wave),” 2024, watercolor and gouache on rag paper, 13 1/4 x 30”

Waterston eclectically extracts from Color Field painting what he needs without embracing the art theory that later hardened into sterile pictorial dogma. The soft-focus illuminated backgrounds and shadowy foregrounds hark back to European landscape-painting conventions. The bright colors and ambiguous forms pay homage to Redon’s late pastels and early charcoal noirs. The strange botanical, fungal or geode forms that occupy Waterston’s middle distance and foreground, created by layered glazes, are also reminiscent of the strange shells and flowers that Ernst created by scraping and squeezing wet paint. “Hillside,” “Transfiguration,” “Sonata Forms,” “Field 4,” and “Metamorphose Trilogy 3,” just to name a few, are timeless poetic dioramas that have been nurtured into existence by an artist unconstrained by fads and fashions. Waterston is no peintre-bête, imposing his will on images in the manner of Maugham’s antihero. In Waterston’s hands nature reveals itself through the thoughtful agency of paint.

DeWitt Cheng is an art writer/critic based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has written for more than twenty years for regional and national publications, in print and online, He has written dozens of catalogue essays for artists, galleries and museums, and is the author of “Inside Out: The Paintings of William Harsh.” In addition, he served as the curator at Stanford Art Spaces from 2013 to 2016, and later Peninsula Museum of Art, from 2017 to 2020.
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