Returning Home: Six Decades of Art by Ira Yeager

Returning Home:
Six Decades of Art by Ira Yeager

Returning Home surveys Ira Yeager’s multifaceted approach to art, wherein figures and landscapes, vibrant colors, and abstract lines harmoniously mingle. Highlighting more than 50 works of art, ranging from intimate plein air studies to large oil and acrylic canvases, the exhibition provides viewers an opportunity to appreciate Yeager’s stylistic development over a span of 60 years.

From the verdant valleys of Napa, where California’s finest winery grapes are grown, to the eighteenth- century French courtly painters, Yeager draws inspiration from both reality and fantasy. Add to this mix the artist’s unceasing wanderlust and a touch of the exotic. The result: a prolific body of work composed of many chapters in the artist’s stylistic evolution. Its diversity reflects Yeager’s reinvention of himself while exploring the milieu of the many places called home: Florence, Corfu, Tangiers, Santa Fe, New York City, San Francisco, and Calistoga.

Bellingham, where Yeager was born in 1938, exerted a formidable influence on the budding artist. His father, Ira Yeager Sr., the founder of a sporting goods store bearing his name, outfitted and led fishing and hunting expeditions in the majestic Pacific Northwest. But Ira Jr., born of a sensitive nature, rejected the culture of machismo and found refuge in the world of art. He began drawing when he was eight years old.

His father’s store, however, opened up a fertile avenue of artistic inspiration by providing Yeager contact with Native American traders from Western Washington and Vancouver Island. Although New Mexico sparked the artist’s interpretive series of aboriginal people, Bellingham provided the seed. However, for the cultivation of his career, Yeager had to look outside Whatcom County to a cultural center with an established art school.

In 1957, after graduating from Bellingham High School, Yeager followed in the footsteps of another native son, the conceptual artist David Ireland (1930- 2009), and set out for the California College of Arts and Crafts, San Francisco. There, he studied with Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) and later, at the San Francisco Art Institute, with Elmer Bischoff (1916-1991) and Nathan Oliveira (1928-2010). He also met Joan Brown (1938-1990), the California figurative artist, who would become a lifelong friend. Yeager’s early portraits and figures, made from expressive, bold strokes of color, betray the influence of what would become known as the Bay Area Figurative Movement.

To find his own way in the world of art, Yeager began a lifelong love of travel in 1960. Living in Italy and Morocco, and exploring France and Spain, he thrived in the bohemian world of renowned artists and writers. Highlights from the artist’s correspondence with the author Paul Bowles (1910-1999) are documented in Yeager’s book, 2137 Tanger Socco (2011), which includes eight watercolors and a painting on canvas for the front cover.

Upon his return to San Francisco, Yeager painted Self-portrait: As the Dreamt Arrival of the Man in the White Suit (1965). The artist exudes an air of confidence, but the title betrays the flip side of his extroverted dandy persona. In this seductive painting stir the inner frailties that reveal the existential realities of life. In many of Yeager’s works, including his Native American series, the bravura brushwork surface hides a sadness that wells up in the eyes, the window into the soul.

Yeager fine-tuned this creative tension in Corfu, Greece, where he lived for ten years beginning in 1975. During this second formative period, the artist interpreted the rugged simplicity of peasant life by painting lifesized canvases of women balancing their livelihood — sheep, hay, cans of feta — in their arms or perched on their head. These figures become increasingly abstract as Yeager dissolves their features into broad strokes of paint. Sometimes the artist penetrates deeply into facial expression to reveal the harsh passage of time. In contrast to his figural works from the 1950s and 1960s, Yeager’s Greek paintings appear austere, due in part to a more restricted color palette.

After a stint in New York City, Yeager returned to San Francisco in 1982 and later to the Napa Valley. Wine Country landscapes blossomed into full glory, nurtured by the artist’s early experience painting en plein air in Santa Fe, New Mexico (1966-1972). Yeager’s acute observation of nature, heightened sense of color, and expressive brushwork reflect an Impressionist spirit. He often painted the same field of grapes from different angles and times of day. These vineyard paintings were celebrated in a large 2007 exhibition at COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts. Yeager continues to find fascination in these landscapes where he places earth and sky in classical equilibrium.

Yeager also interprets the fine balance between land and atmosphere in heroically-scaled abstract compositions of oil, acrylic and gesso. These works reflect a Diebenkorn-like compartmentalization of geometrical units, arranged as if looking out a window. The artist creates a jigsaw puzzle of elements — water, earth, sky — rearranged into an array of patterns. The encrusted surface of palpable paint textures traces simultaneously the movement of the artist’s gesture and nature’s passage of time. Yeager has painted a number of other series that attest to an idiosyncratic assortment of interests: eighteenth-century shoes, neoclassical portraits on mirrors, Venetian masks, teapots, and mixed-media assemblages composed of chairs, portrait or still life paintings, and related objects. This potpourri represents the artist’s whimsical side. Its antidote is his Native American paintings, a selection of which was first exhibited at the Whatcom Museum (and curated by David Ireland) in 1976.

The artist’s first series of Indian Paintings dates to 1965. For over 40 years, Yeager has returned to this cornerstone in his oeuvre. Inspiration has come from a number of sources, including the heroic photographs in Edward S. Curtis’s North American Indian volumes and portfolios (1907-1930). Yeager defines his generalized portraits through virtuoso brushwork. With rich passages of color and dynamic lines, the portraits lure viewers into lush abstract expressionist gestures. Through his Native American series, the artist demonstrates the pure joy of painting. Yeager writes:

Some ask if there is a magical philosophy why I paint Indians. It is a tool to use — of use for color exercises like a pianist does scales, like an architect builds a house. I paint music like a symphony or an opera. A successful Indian painting is like a Verdi-triumphant march.
(Ira Yeager: Indian Paintings, 2007)

A romantic nostalgia for the idea of the “noble savage” permeates these works. This idealized concept was embraced by eighteenth-century French culture, Yeager’s second self-identified obsession. He specifically gravitates towards those artists who celebrated the frivolity of monarchy. The artist updates his cavorting figures by adding hand-written text and emblematic objects and animals in the background. As in all of his work, Yeager wields his mighty brush. For this reason, nobody would mistake these paintings for appropriated imagery as defined in contemporary art world circles. They belong decidedly to Ira Yeager.

The sum total of Yeager’s art reflected in Returning Home underscores the expression, “There is more than meets the eye.” This exhibition celebrates the complexity and ambiguity of the artist’s vision, which ultimately translates into a devotion to the act of painting itself.

Barbara Matilsky
Curator of Art Whatcom Museum

Cited from exhibition catalogue: RETURNING HOME:  Six Decade of Art by Ira Yeager. (pg.5-7)
Bellingham, Washington; February 6-May 15, 2016