Two individual artists visiting the Nathan Oliveira exhibition in the Natalie and James Thompson Gallery at San Jose State University, in the School of Art and Design came away with very different impressions of the show. Both were asked to comment on the way Oliveira’s work connected to their own artistic direction. Dana Harris focused on the formal and technical aspect of the monotypes in the show and Robbie Sugg related to Oliveira’s content and the development of a relationship to the meaning of the image.

Site Specific

Nathan Oliveira

By Dana Harris

I remember seeing Nathan Oliveira’s work in a book I found while attending college. Entitled Bay Area Figuration, I remember being very intrigued by his use of gestural marks in paint. I don’t remember seeing any of his monotypes until the show here at San Jose State University. They blew me away. His prints have a presence that drew me in immediately. It wasn’t the scale of the pieces that captured and held me, it was the sense of light emanating from within the work.


Nathan Oliveira’s monotype with mixed media, Douro Valley #1, at the Natalie and James Thompson Gallery, San Jose State University

Across the room I saw Portuguese sites, Douro Valley #3. I had to investigate. The rich earthy rust color seemed to be taken from the land itself. The layering of graphite drawing over the color field enriched the image, making the physicality of the “site” Oliveira was conjuring come to life. Upon entering the gallery, at first glance, I didn’t notice the surface drawing on the the monotype. The color grabbed me, and only upon closer inspection did I perceive the intricate map-like drawing. I really love the way detail can come and go in an image. Oliveira makes this look so easy, but I’ve struggled with just how much detail to include in a piece, and how to achieve a sense of the ethereal while keeping a solid ground upon which to rest.


Red Arrows, monotype with mixed media by Dana Harris

In several of the other monotypes, the landscape is relatively sparse in subject matter- there aren’t too many objects cluttering up the space, but the texture from the paint itself as well as the over-painting Oliveira has done fills the page as well as the room. In Douro valley 1, the colors harmonize very well together. The picture plane is extremely contained, yet possesses a spaciousness that denies its actual size. I want to achieve the same sense of spaciousness in my prints and drawings. I try to use the negative space in a way that gives the elements a quality of floating, or being ungrounded yet contained. Instead of keeping the negative space the tone of the paper, Oliveira uses broad sweeps of solid and transparent color as a ground, or “site” which is very inspiring to me. The monotypes are very built up with layers of ink and drawing, while still holding a sense of transparency and luminosity that is amazing.

The color choices in The New Mexican Sites #12 really intrigued me. I enjoy the mauve-pink color, and the way in which it needs the hints of aqua and deep alizarin crimson. The three prints in proximity to this one seem colder than the others with more ochres and rusts. His color choices alone don’t give the impression of less warmth. Perhaps it’s the starkness of the subject to the ground it exists in. I get the same sense in the bronze works by Oliveira. They don’t have the same quality of light or life as the orange prints. They are much more tomb-like. They seem to be relics still half-buried in the ground. Their spaciousness however is still apparent, as if they are scale models of vast environmental expanses.

Overall, the movement which exists in the lines of the all the monotype pieces, and also the sense of stillness, gives them warmth and life. They make me want to go to those sites, to be in those places. I really love how the “sites” as well as the objects within them are not clarified. The obscurity of the subjects adds to the mystery and eternal, ethereal quality they possess.

Dana Harris is an MFA student in San Jose State’s School of Art and Design.

Nathan Oliveira and the Identity of Place

By Robbie Sugg

On April 13, 2010, San Francisco Bay Area artist, Nathan Oliveira, gave a lecture at San Jose State University to open his exhibition at the Natalie and James Thompson Art Gallery entitled Nathan Oliveira: Site Specific/Content and Context. The show features pieces from Oliveira’s Sites series: monotypes, bronzes, and paintings dealing with the substance and identity of place. The pieces allude to place or sites in terms of their unseen aspects in addition to their physical, representational forms. These unseen aspects include the ancestral reverberations of a site, the manifestation of it in memory or dream, what is felt or sensed as well as what is seen and pronounced.


New Mexico Site #12, By Nathan Oliveira

In his humble and relaxed lecture, Oliveira expanded upon the connotation of place when he referenced his struggle to find a “place” as an artist, “something that fully belonged to” him. This suggests that he found an actual place in himself as an artist; in his life’s work, these are the places from which his artistic visions sprang, the inner realms of the unconscious, subconscious, memory, dreams, or the psyche. I was struck to learn that the “sites” Oliveira depicted arose from his mind rather than existing physically on Earth. The places he creates are viscerally dense, fully realized with the intimation that Oliveira had indeed spent as much time in these sites as in any homeland. These are indeed real places, but they reside in a different plane of existence.


Oliveira’s New Mexico Site #3

With my own struggle to find my place as an artist, Oliveira’s sentiments resonated deeply with me as did his Sites. The imagery had an immediate familiarity to me. The dreamlike representation of mountains and land were rendered masterfully, with a full, spirited and gestural, yet hazy texture. Perched in many scenes were totem-like presences: abstract constructions that dominated an ethereal landscape, impossible to ignore, yet embodying an immense quietude. The totems in Sites are abstract, carrying no recognizable character sense or personality. However, the figures have a silent command as if they are constructs of some residing consciousness; they carry an air of identity that is foreign to representation. These totems provide an incredibly indigenous feel for the works which already carry a strongly petroglyphic sense of texture; Although the images are flat and renedered on paper, they have the sublime tactility of being carved and built up, like indigenous petroglyphs. In some works, hard graphite literally carves into the print, and in others, soft graphite, crayon, paint, and other mixed media build up and outward.

My visceral reaction to Olivera’s paintings and monotypes was a flashback to my own pilgrimage to the Amazon Rainforest in 2008. Upon landing in the forest on the eastern fringes of Ecuador, there was definitively an immense, unfathomable presence. It resounded in the magnitude of teeming life everywhere around me and in the heavy aroma of the air. Even gravity had a greater energy to it, as I felt sensitive to the expanded dimensions of place. The wide wavelength of the place felt familiar to me, and carried a form in my mind‚Äôs eye. The presence of the Amazon was different than the psycho-spiritual texture of my own homeland, yet possessed a similar magnitude. These realizations echoed my own current artistic and conceptual obsessions: those dealing with the idea of home, a place that one belongs to, a place that connects one to his or her history, origin, or genesis. This concept of place includes the ancestral aspects, not only blood-ancestors but all people, ideas, thoughts, memories, species, and the geological and ecological processes that have come before us. It all leads up to a collective identity of place, and leads into one‚Äôs sense of feeling ‚Äúnative‚Äù to a land rather than acting as a foreigner, migrant, or colonist.


Untitled, Silkscreen and mixed media, By Robbie Sugg

The experience of this exhibition and lecture has catalyzed in me a confidence of vision and an excited inspiration. I look forward to incorporating my insights and responses to Oliveira’s craft, concept, and artistry into my own work so that I may better elucidate my own meditations on home, place, and what is really here.

Robbie Sugg is a BFA student at San Jose State University’s School of Art and Design.

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