Breakthrough at Monca

Powerful retrospective showcases potential of new art museum

The artist’s sister, Kathleen Kuiper (left), and wife Elizabeth Newman Kuiper, at the memorial reception for Monca’s James Kuiper retrospective.

The artist’s sister, Kathleen Kuiper (left), and wife Elizabeth Newman Kuiper, at the memorial reception for Monca’s James Kuiper retrospective.

Photo by Steve Scarborough

James Kuiper: Notes From a Spanish Dutchman, now showing at Monca through Dec. 31.
Museum of Northern California Art
900 Esplanade

Anyone who questions the value of the Museum of Northern California Art to the cultural life of the North Valley should see its current exhibit, James Kuiper: Notes From a Spanish Dutchman. This powerful, absorbing retrospective of the work of a prolific local artist could not have been mounted anywhere else in Chico.

Kuiper, who died on Feb. 27 at the age of 71, worked big—which is to say his paintings tend to be sizable, with some in the 6-by-8-foot range. Even his smaller pieces are relatively large.

The 85 works here, including about 15 sculptural assemblages, span 36 years in Kuiper’s life. They easily fill all three of the museum’s main galleries. Because of their size, they showcase Monca’s ability to mount large-scale exhibitions. It’s a beautiful museum, and the Kuiper show does it justice.

According to his artist’s bio, James Alan Kuiper was born in Roseland, Ill., to a family of strictly religious Calvinist Dutch farmers. He attended Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he received a bachelor’s degree in English literature. He married and lived for two years in Nigeria, where he became fascinated by tribal masks and other tribal artworks.

After getting an MFA from Michigan State, he began his teaching career in art at Calvin College. He and his wife, Cheryl, had three sons, but when couple divorced he lost his tenure-track position and had to search for work.

He took a job teaching art at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. There he married a fellow artist, Elizabeth Newman. At a memorial celebration held at Monca on Saturday (Nov. 4), she said she fell in love with him when she first saw “Joshua Turning,” a large, dramatic abstract painting that figures prominently in this exhibit.

In 1989, the couple settled in Chico, where he was hired as a professor and chairman of the Art Department at Chico State and where their daughter, Hannah, was born.

Kuiper was physically as well as mentally strong, “a block of Dutch muscle,” as one of his friends put it. As a teacher, he was known to be rigorous but inspiring, one who expected as much from his students as he did from himself.

This exhibit is arranged more or less chronologically, beginning in the 1980s with purely abstract oil-on-canvas exercises in color and form, many of them quite large. From there Kuiper began a series of expressionistic landscapes with titles such as “Mesa and Mountain” and “Big Trinity River,” some created as recently as 2016. Here again he was exploring color and form, but now with an emotional connection to the Earth, which he saw as threatened.

In the late 1990s he also began a series of paintings on Mylar, some using ink and graphite, others ink and acrylic. The most remarkable of these is his “Whiskeytown Lake Series,” a set of 25 unique drawings of forest trees mounted five to a row and stacked from floor to ceiling. The Mylar gives the tree figures a kind of three-dimensional vibrancy that helps make each drawing stand out.

Space doesn’t let me say much about his assemblages, other than to note that they’re a lot of fun. There’s a “Flying Ship,” a couple of boats, several masks, all carefully composed using found materials. It’s a gas to see what he does with some ordinary, everyday items.

Kudos to David Hopper and Joshua Olivera, who hung the show with guidance from Elizabeth Newman Kuiper, whose finely tuned esthetic sense is visible throughout. This is a lovingly presented exhibit in a beautifully designed museum. Don’t miss it.