Works in process
New figure works by iconic Chico painter Sal Casa
Sal Casa’s newest exhibition of work, now showing at Chico State’s Humanities Center Gallery, bears the same name as Renaissance painter Raphael’s famous painting of three female nudes, “The Three Graces.”
But, as Casa offered in a recent interview, “I started with these three images, but I’m just beginning. As you paint, things take over.”
Let’s backtrack a little: It’s not easy to get Casa—an icon in the Chico art world—to talk about himself. The twinkle-eyed 82-year-old (who looks about 60 and has the enthusiasm of someone in his 20s) does not readily trot out his credentials and numerous awards.
We know that he attended New York’s School of Visual Arts in 1949, studied art in Washington, D.C., and in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and received a master’s degree in art from Chico State in 1974. He has shown his paintings all over the United States, and is a multiple-award-winning member of the National Watercolor Society. Casa has also taught at Chico State, and currently teaches at the Chico Art Center.
Casa didn’t want to talk about his résumé—except to mention that he did not like the stylistic pigeonholing that resulted from his winning a 1988 Watercolor Society Gold Medal. (“People kept calling for reproductions of the painting of mine that was picked to go on tour,” he said.) He preferred to talk about the process of painting—a process that seems always to reveal something new to him—and the “things [that] take over.
“I’ve been dealing with the figure for years in teaching,” said Casa, who is known for his signature abstract watercolor paintings. “And while I was painting, I thought, why not paint the figure? … I’m surrounded by figures in town—all these young people downtown, [pictures of people] on newsstands … on magazine covers.”
The result is Casa’s The Three Graces show, a collection of untitled oils, watercolors and sketches that range from the first piece he made for the series—a watercolor-and-pencil piece depicting three realistic, female-nude figures—to a highly abstract painting in which expressive swatches of the three primary colors red, yellow and blue are the only representation of the Graces.
For two of the pieces, one a large charcoal drawing featuring a woman wearing an Annie Bidwell-era-style dress, Casa used local seamstress Sarah Rose Testman (of art/fashion collective Chikoko) as a model.
Another piece—a figure-study painting in pinks, grays, black and white—features three women who appear to each be reworkings of a single model. The white in the piece recalls French post-Impressionist painter Cezanne in that it is actually bare canvas.
Yet another piece stretches the Three Graces concept to include two men in silhouette against a multicolored background.
“The pieces, as I continue to work, are becoming more involved with color,” Casa said.
And they are becoming increasingly abstract.
“The oils are quick gestures—hopefully preludes to better things,” the painter advised humbly, before adding that his The Three Graces series is a work in progress. “And the more abstract it gets, the better it becomes.”
Casa said he “put[s] the figure in early on, then start[s] to take it out, but it still remains. It’s like trying to paint something and trying not to paint. …The main thing I strive for in the work is light and air—that they’re breathing.”
“To me,” added Casa, with his characteristic, almost-cryptic twinkle, “the ultimate painting would be to send an empty sheet to the watercolor society and they’ll put a gold medal on it because it’s the ultimate statement—nothing. And I hope to do it before I get too old.”