David Ligare | The Promised Land

Broad Landscape With a River [1998], oil, 80 x 116.  painting, southwest art.
Broad Landscape With a River [1998], oil, 80 x 116.

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

In John Steinbeck’s novel Pastures of Heaven, an early Spanish settler happens upon a lush central California landscape. Awestruck by the beauty, he whispers, “Holy Mother! Here are the green pastures of heaven to which our Lord leadeth us.”

Like the young settler in Steinbeck’s novel, painter David Ligare is also enamored of this area west of Salinas and bordered by the Gabilan Mountains on the east. Known as Pastures of Heaven today, its lush green and gold hills surround the artist’s home. Visible from his studio window are the sweeping pastures he frequently depicts in his sublime body of work, including Landscape With Buck and Still Life With Roses and Arrow. These are works rendered in California’s late-afternoon light when the shadows are long, dramatic, and deep.

Still Life With Roses and Arrow [1999], oil, 48 x 40. painting, southwest art.
Still Life With Roses and Arrow [1999], oil, 48 x 40.

Ligare finds it easy to ruminate about the visual pleasures of his home in Monterey County where he draws so much inspiration. “If I want a rocky crag, I know where to find one. If I want soft rolling hills, I’ve got them all around. If I want an ocean with cliffs, gentle beaches, lakes, and rivers, they are all here,” he says.

As he talks he glances out the window at a scene he depicted in Broad Land-scape With a River: the Salinas River curling toward Monterey Bay on a foggy day. It’s immediately evident that Ligare is knowledgeable about the cultural and literary heritage of his home. A student of Steinbeck, Ligare points out that the well-known writer was born in Monterey County and lived for many years in the coastal town of Pacific Grove.

“Steinbeck tends to mythologize Monterey County, applying stories from the Bible to the tales he tells, and it’s most evident in East of Eden set in Salinas Valley,” he says, referring to the novel that re-creates the biblical rivalry of Cain and Abel. “Steinbeck saw this area as a land rich with promise.” So does Ligare. In fact, a 1999 show at Hackett-Freedman Gallery in San Francisco—aptly titled Pastures of Heaven featured his renderings of the breathtaking vistas near his home.

Ligare’s affection for the area’s spectacular scenery marks every aspect of his art and is a prominent element whether he is rendering figures, architecture, or everyday objects. In the painting Still Life With a Rock and a Leaf, for example, the objects are lit by late-afternoon light and set against a landscape that includes a pale blue Pacific Ocean.

Still Life With a Rock and a Leaf [1994], oil, 20 x 24. painting, southwest art.
Still Life With a Rock and a Leaf [1994], oil, 20 x 24.

Landscape painters abound, but what sets Ligare apart is that he appropriates ideas and references from disparate subject matter ranging from Steinbeck novels to ancient Greek and Roman mythology. At times his works seem to have been created in another era, perhaps by French painter Nicholas Poussin [1593-1665], who’s another source of inspiration for the contemporary California artist. It’s no surprise Ligare’s paintings have an appeal beyond the Golden State and are shown regularly in museums in the United States and Europe, including the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, WA, the Philbrook Museum of Art in Tulsa, OK, Il Politico in Rome, Italy, and the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.

If a viewer finds Ligare’s landscapes reminiscent of the light and terrain of northern Italy, it’s no accident. Ligare, a regular visitor to the area, sees many similarities between central California and Italy. “The view out my window seems very much like Tuscany—the same configuration of hills, same vegetation, and the same Mediterranean climate,” Ligare says. And as Ligare points out, there is often the same sense of mythology and awe connected to the two regions. “When Americans hear I’m going to Tuscany they grow wistful and say, ‘Ah, Tuscany!’ But when Italians hear where I am from, they say, ‘Ah, California!’”

Still Life With Honey and Lemons [1999], oil, 48 x 40. painting, southwest art.
Still Life With Honey and Lemons [1999], oil, 48 x 40.

Ligare is fond of inhabiting his contemporary California landscapes with classical Roman and Greek figures. In Self- Portrait in Homage to Petrarch he pays his respect to Francesco Petrarch, an Italian poet who helped reestablish the desire for learning that led to the Renaissance and a rebirth of artistic and intellectual achievement. Ligare usually uses a model in his figurative works, but in this case the model didn’t show up and the artist painted himself into the scene in a long, flowing robe. The background of the painting is, of course, Monterey County.

Hercules is another favorite Ligare figure. “The complex choices Hercules had to make between pleasure and virtue interest me,” Ligare says. In the painting Hercules at the Crossroads, an ancient figure poses near a river. The water represents the path of least resistance, and the club symbolizes the more difficult route—climbing the nearby rocky outcropping, Ligare explains. “I want to bring ancient allegories into a modern consciousness. So many are forgotten and neglected, and they are useful metaphors for us,”  he says.

Ligare, who grew up in the Los Angeles area and attended the Art Center College of Design, attributes his interest in classical mythology to a seminal moment when he was 18 and traveling in Europe. He arrived in Athens one night by train. When he awoke the next day, he stepped outside of his hotel, turned, and saw the Acropolis illuminated by a bright sun and set against a brilliant blue sky; the image stayed with him for years before he included certain classical elements in his works. “In my process of making paintings, I will start thinking about something and make drawings, but it can take up to 20 years before I paint it,” he says.

Self-Portrait in Homage to Petrarch [1994], oil, 80 x 116. painting, southwest art.
Self-Portrait in Homage to Petrarch [1994], oil, 80 x 116.

Early in his career Ligare painted plein-air landscapes. About 10 years after leaving art school he began incorporating classical figures and architecture into his paintings. Today he paints entirely in his studio and often constructs his works according to a geometric plan. He frequently divides the canvas into grids, from left to right and top to bottom, so that the landscape literally conforms to an ideal proportion and perfect symmetry that springs from classical tradition.

“I’m trying to achieve integration of all the diverse parts of the image,” Ligare says. Like nature, the elements in his paintings may seem randomly placed, but there is very calculated order.

To describe Ligare’s paintings, Richard V. West, director of the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, uses the term virtu in a catalog accompanying the artist’s 1998 show at the museum. Virtu was coined during the Italian Renaissance to describe artists who combined Greek and Roman ideals of beauty with truth to nature and a modern sensibility, West writes. Virtu was the result of a balance between style, invention, and design—or as Ligare prefers to explain it a balance between structure, surface, and content. “[Ligare] is indeed a painter of virtu. In his paintings, the past resonates with the present to project a future. Historical authority, ethical idealism, and the sheer joy of painting work in tandem to create beautiful and powerful compositions,” West writes.

At press time Ligare was completing works for a show at Koplin Gallery in Los Angeles that opens September 9. In the show, Various Structures, Ligare explores structure, measure, and proportion in architecture, the human figure, and nature. The show is a continuation of his long-standing interest in Greco-Roman art and literature.

As for the future, he says, “I seem to find myself getting more and more theoretical rather than telling stories. I am tending to do works that are about philosophical ideas. The 20th century in art has been so much about subjectivity and people’s personal narratives. I want to continue to work with narratives, allegories, and myths that are less subjective and have broader messages for more people.”

Photos courtesy the artist, Hackett- Freedman Gallery, San Francisco, CA, and Koplin Gallery, Los Angeles, CA.

Featured in September 2000