Photograph by Carol Farrow
Making the mark: Bob Nugent paints small, separate worlds onto his canvases.
By Gretchen Giles
Santa Rosa painter Bob Nugent loves the ancient Amazon River basin, but it wasn't until he stopped being so noisy that he learned anything about the place at all. Nugent, 59, has visited South America--and Brazil specifically--about four times a year since an initial trip in 1984. He was alert to the mass of green that distinguishes the Amazon River area, a color so profuse that any flash of a flower, bird or butterfly becomes magnified in perception. He knew that the thick leaf layer in the river itself colors the water like a seven-mile-wide swathe of Coca-Cola. He had studied the flora and fauna and knew the maps of the area. But he couldn't really see the place.
Visiting a native village, Nugent's guide finally suggested that the painter simply hush up for a while. And so, with his binoculars lying still in his lap, Nugent spent half a day just sitting in the jungle. Bugs crawled over him as naturally as they would a spent log. Slowly, the gloom of the foliage revealed itself and, for the first time, Nugent could actually see.
"I was scared at times--the Amazon does that to you. I learned to let the jungle act upon you; don't act upon it. That's when I started to understand what it was about," he says, standing in the spacious studio nudged into the side of the house he and his wife Lynda built themselves in the early '80s. "It's such a fertile territory for me. I'm learning more and more why this place is so important."
Such vision is acutely reflected in Nugent's work, a new collection of which is on exhibition at Sonoma State University's Art Gallery through March 18.
Simply titled "Recent Paintings and Drawings," this exhibit nicely finishes a circle for Nugent, who taught at SSU for over 20 years and, in fact, acted as gallery director when he joined the faculty in 1981. He retired two years ago but held off his final exhibit until he had recovered from a spinal surgery for a congenital condition that rendered him unable to paint for most of 2006. More physically restrained than he had ever been, Nugent spent half of last year painting small watercolor studies, abstracts based--as his art almost exclusively is--on the Amazon. When his doctors gave their OK last August, he exploded with work, completing some 30 pieces comprised in the current show.
With the exception of two older drawings and two older paintings included to give perspective, the exhibit is the culmination of Nugent's past year. Arranged in groupings, the show has watercolors that sprung from his bedridden proofs; large linen canvas works that are an amalgam of botanical illustration, abstraction and near architectural rendering; a series of paintings done on the pages of an antique book, worm markings and all; and full-canvas abstracts, lush with paint and color.
Given the many pleasing aspects of his work, it's a little surprising to learn that Nugent frankly aims to provoke. "I want someone to be put off by something or feel seduced by it," he says. "I want to get the viewer involved in a piece. If you can digest a painting the first time you see it, it's not successful."
On some of his more controversial pieces, Nugent has left large swatches of the linen canvas untouched, arranging disparate compositions of small abstracts, drawings in grids, and overlays around the field, giving the sense that they may not yet be finished. "Do I need to cover all this up?" he says, looking at a painting on the studio wall. "Sometimes the linen's so beautiful that I don't want to. When you paint, you end up obliterating the linen. I like the fact that one can read the painting."
That said, Nugent shrugs. "I may go back to covering the canvases." Clarifying the dichotomies inherent in his work, he says, "I make large, abstract landscapes. Metaphysical landscapes. I'm more interested that you get a sense of place."
Nugent's studio is a place large enough to mostly accommodate one of the painter's newer commissions, an 11-panel painting that will eventually stretch to 323 feet for the Instituto Cultural Tomie Ohtake in São Paulo. A massive work on paper, the piece will in some small way attempt to reflect the overwhelming grandiosity of the Amazon River itself, no small feat.
'Coberto': Nugent's paintings, titled in Portuguese, reflect his response to the Amazon.
Nugent first came into his career as a master papermaker, even briefly owning his own paper mill. While studying in Japan, he met fellow student Otavio Roth, an artist from Brazil, who invited Nugent to come visit him at home. Nugent did, and when he returned from South America, he realized that his time working with paper--a medium he had considered so thoroughly that he used it as its object--was over. "I felt constrained by the medium," he says now, adding that a subsequent switch to pastels eventually led him back to the canvas and paints he had abandoned after art school.
Exuberantly preparing to enter his seventh decade, Nugent is certainly not constrained. He regularly curates and organizes exchange exhibits with artists from Brazil, a country that he reminds is very cosmopolitan, having strong ties to Germany and Italy. In addition to his work in the studio, Nugent curates a more unusual art collection, the one held by Imagery Estates for its wine-label collection.
The story's a good one. In 1983, Nugent and Imagery co-owner Joe Benziger were both at an Oakmont polo match, of all places, where a fight broke out among two Samoan guests. Acting together, the two men broke up the fight. Once the melee was over, Nugent and Benziger became friends.
The next year, when Benziger had a particularly fine quality Chardonnay preparing to bottle, he asked Nugent to create a special label. The artist responded by creating a triptych, a three-piece work of label art that "reads" when placed on three bottles side by side. As Benziger has chuckled, the wine also sold "three times as fast."
Since then such art-world stars as Sol LeWitt, Squeak Carnwath, David Nash and a host of others have contributed labels to the collection, which numbers more than 190 pieces. "I'm not the kind of guy who will spend 10 hours a day, six days a week in the studio," Nugent grins. "I like to talk to people." To that end, he's just as likely to be found in Imagery's tasting room, pouring wine for customers.
Regardless of renown, each artist receives the same stipend and, the greatest lure of all, 10 cases of wine. In fact, Nugent most relishes the unknown artists he finds through his national dealers. "We don't care if they have a big reputation or not. All that matters to me is if the work is inspired," he says. "We spend a lot of time researching the artists, because when we commission an image, we promise that we will use it. I never reject an image, even if I don't like it."
Nugent will return to Brazil in April. He has two dealers in that country to see and new landscapes to discover. Meanwhile, a coffee-table book of the Imagery labels came out last year and a book on Nugent's own painting is due this year. For a retiree, he's a busy man.
"I have trouble saying no," he explains. "My life is about working with people. And my work wouldn't be as interesting if I didn't have all of those things."
'Bob Nugent: Recent Paintings and Drawings' continues at the SSU Art Gallery through March 18. Open Tuesday-Friday, 11am to 4pm; Saturday-Sunday, noon to 4pm. 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. Free. 707.664.2295.
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