Ira Yeager at the Napa Valley Museum

By Sandy Thompson, Artweek, Volume 31, Issue 4; Pp.20-21

IY_NVM1Ira Yeager, Fly Screen Santos, 1999, mixed media, 66″ x52″, at the Napa Valley Museum, Yountville. Seeing for the first time – especially in a retrospective – the work of an artist who’s been around for awhile but whom you’ve never encountered pushes the wondering: where has this guy been? (Or, I, for that matter.) Ira Yeager has painted for nearly 50 years. His studios have graced Italy, France, Greece, Morocco, San Francisco and Napa since 1990. International indeed, but his best work is singularly defined by one school: Bay Area Figurative. Its pantheon – particularly Diebenkorn and Bischoff – courses through his oeuvre. His less successful offerings, however, are the result of a conspicuous device – an affaire d’amour with the eighteenth century. Yeager works in series, although he is not constrained by that process. His works’ chronologies are certainly not unconnected, but neither are they linear. There is a continual willingness – deliberate, self-exposing and frank – to revisit previous motifs, his reinvestigation fortified by his continually growing facility with technique, primarily the application of paint, color and curiosity. Yeager’s Indian chief portraits provide an instructional example of these traits, as well as his growth as a painter’s painter. Indian with Blue Background (1968) is subtle in tonality, calm of brushwork, studied as to personality. With Indian (1989), the colors lift out of flat tan hues into a larger variety of earth tones, the surface more textured, promoting a sense of persona not model. But with Native American Indian (1998), his exuberance of brushwork and palette push the piece into the domain of psychological landscape. Over time, an organic fluctuation between the free and the formal has characterized his work. There is a sense of permutation and rediscovery in his subject matter, color choices and handling of paint. There is also an intrepid audacity in his directions, regardless of outcome. And this is the answer to where he has been: Yeager is not commercial in any sense. He has not played it safe. At his best, he is painterly, loose, exuberant; faithful, in a maverick way, to the pedigree of his mentors. His portraits, at all stages of his career, and his landscapes, especially since 1983, exemplify this style. Of the portraits, I particularly enjoyed Yeager mimicking a dandy Tom Wolfe in Self Portrait: as dreamt arrival of the man in the white suit (1965) and the corpulent elegance of Hogarthian Study: Sir Francis Bacon (1988). Only the lyrically chaotic landscape The New/Old Vineyard (1984) stood out as uniquely his, and not a Diebenkorn tribute. With his portraits and landscapes, it is the integrity of medium that wins. It is paint for paint’s sake. His colors are rich, edible, powerful but not intrusive. These works absorb the viewer with their energy. Here, Yeager’s approach is experimental, investigative, chancy. His deliberate craquelure-like juxtaposition of acrylic and oil in recent work generates a tactile sensuality, a property found throughout his career in these motifs. When he retreats into his eighteenth century aura – take his Elizabeth Salter (1968), his L’Indovina (1985), or his The Surrender of Philosophy (1998) – his work becomes tame, controlled, almost contrived. This work is manipulative. It is wallpaper decorative. It is wallpaper entertaining. It is more about his own whimsical and idiosyncratic attachments to a period. It is more about subject matter as picture and painting as surface treatment, and less about the tangible and hedonistic attributes of paint or the scrutiny of and investment in emotional content.