Blue man group

Collection from the late John Ayres dates to the 1930s

BODIES OF WORK<br>The late John Ayres’ charcoal drawings from the 1930s are displayed for the first time.

The late John Ayres’ charcoal drawings from the 1930s are displayed for the first time.

Photo By Andrew Boost

“One suspects he could paint in deeper blues than Bessie Smith’s and still make it flame.”
—San Francisco Chronicle art critic Alfred Frankenstein, April 4, 1943, about artist John Ayres

The blues—various shades hovering around turquoise—are what one notices in the paintings by late artist and highly respected Chico State art professor John Ayres, currently showing at James Snidle Fine Arts Gallery.

A framed watercolor of the Notre Dame de Paris is lovely, and notable for the delicate transparency of the different blues used to color Ayres’ depiction of the early gothic cathedral. According to gallery manager Dean Willson, one of Ayres’ daughters noted that “it’s almost like he painted a soul into that building, with an aura around it.”

It’s true—the cathedral vibrates with a life of its own (and no people are pictured).

Likewise, the beautiful blues and greens in his oil painting “Pisa Group"—abstractly based on Italy’s famous Leaning Tower of Pisa—easily catch and hold the viewer’s eye.

Ayres, who died in 2005 at the age of 91, was one of the Chico State Art Department’s original faculty members (the university’s art building is named after him). During his lifetime Ayres exhibited at such respected West Coast galleries as San Francisco’s de Young and Museum of Modern Art, as well as Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento.

Most of the current exhibit is on loan from the collections of Ayres’ daughters, Jean Ayres-Clark and Janet Johnson. Also on display are a large number of charcoal figure drawings on paper done by Ayres while studying art at UC Berkeley from 1936 to 1938. The charcoal drawings have never been displayed, and were selected for the exhibit after James Snidle was asked to appraise the collection. Snidle discovered that one of the renderings was the study (a preliminary sketch by an artist before creating a final piece) for a painting he bought years ago.

Ayres’ drawings of the human figure are no less architectural than his representation of buildings. They may be even more so.

While Ayres’ buildings seem to shimmer with life emanating from within, his people seem quite stoic and unrelaxed, and all but one of his charcoal figure drawings are done with heavy, black, angular lines rather than curved lines. None of the people he depicted, except for a portrait of his late wife of 57 years, Alice Dodson Ayres, is smiling.

Regardless of their mood—perhaps because of their seriousness bordering on melancholy at times—Ayres’ models draw the viewer in.

An oil painting, done by Ayres in 1938, of a reclining nude hangs above the charcoal drawing Ayres used as a study for the painting. She does not look relaxed, and the blockiness of her surroundings match her stiffness. Yet, Ayres managed to capture a vulnerable, aloof beauty in his model’s face. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.

Another piece, an Art Deco-ish watercolor of a woman reclining before a cityscape background, easily invites one to compare the subject to an elaborate hood ornament on an expensive car—she is both statuesque and statue-like.

The work of Ayres—a lover of architecture, and a Europhile who started a fund for Chico State art students to help them travel to Europe and paint—appears to be have been more than a little influenced by the German Bauhaus school of crafts and fine arts, in existence from 1919 to 1933.

According to the Bauhaus manifesto, “the ultimate aim of all creative activity is a building.” Ayres painted buildings, from Notre Dame to the decidedly secular “Sand Plant"—a warm-toned gouache painting of a sand-producing factory—with an equal reverence, and a similar modernist touch. He even signed many of his drawings with a signature very much resembling a draftsman’s on a blueprint, in some case complete with underlining.

Ayres was lauded in his day as one of the top watercolorists working on the West Coast. It’s a great opportunity to spend time gazing at the work of such a talented (and local) man.