Color him obsessed
Sacramento artist Peter Stegall's new exhibit represents a lifetime immersed in bright hues, hard lines and shifting shapes
At 72, artist Peter Stegall has lived many lives: He has moved countless times throughout Northern California and its Central Valley as a child and young man, served in the Army in the very early Vietnam War era—and narrowly missed being shipped off because his wife was in her seventh month of pregnancy. He attended Sacramento State University in the “wild times” of the late ’60s and joined an art collective in New York in the mid-’80s. He also taught art at the University of Nevada, Reno for 10 years. In 1989, he returned to Sacramento and reintegrated into the local art world, where he still works today.
Throughout it all, one thread remained constant: Stegall’s prolific output of art, some of which is on display this month in the exhibit Color & Shape at Bows & Arrows in Midtown.
Renny Pritikin, former director of the Richard L. Nelson Gallery at UC Davis, who has included Stegall’s work in group shows numerous times, finds Stegall’s place in the larger picture one that transcends fad and novelty.
“Peter is the least trendy artist I know of. If the art world is resolutely against certainty, craft, formal studies and nonreferential abstraction, then [he] is the most resolute practitioner of nontrendy art we have,” Pritikin says.
“But it’s not enough to just go against the tide, as any difficult person can do,” Pritikin adds. “It’s about doing it for a reason and doing it really, really well: Stegall’s color studies are truffles of visual pleasure for we aesthetes [who’ve been] deprived of sugar for years.”
The artist’s life and home reflects this aesthetic.
As Stegall opens the door to his compact, bright, cozy apartment in Oak Park one recent winter day, he sports white Adidas, khaki pants and a blazer over a sweater vest. His gray hair is neatly slicked back, and a small, jaunty bandana is tied at his throat.
His apartment serves as a de facto art gallery for his work. One wall along a narrow hallway is hung with a grid of his small color-block paintings that have served as his bread and butter for 30 years. Throughout the rooms, the old and the new mesh, as in the juxtaposition of his contemporary paintings and the rows of pristine vintage cowboy hats displayed above.
The pieces in the color-block series are done on Masonite with glossy enamel paint, which gives the work “bounce,” he says. Although it is not figurative, Stegall says he doesn’t consider his work abstract—for him it’s all about the relationship of the colors and their interaction with shape.
Rather, Stegall speaks of his work as always having a “hard edge,” which stems from his early interest in cartooning and comics. Translated: There is no overlapping, no blending of shades in his work, ever.
As he continues his tour around the apartment, he picks up two small works he created at Sac State during the late ’60s that are leaning against a wall. Stegall points out the small figures embedded within the intricate patterns of triangles. It’s an abstract family portrait, depicting Stegall, his then-wife and his three children; a tiny tableau that becomes even more touching as he notes, wistfully, that she died in May.
Two pieces from this phase in his work have another layer of meaning for him as well.
“My favorite year was Stockton when I was 7. We lived a block from The Haggin Museum, which had a wonderful Egyptian collection,” he says. “We’d go there every day and play, and there was a mummy. Fast-forward to Sac State in the early ’70s—[and] a bunch of [my work] got into a [Wayne] Thiebaud juried show at that museum. … These were in that show, and they were hung right around the corner from that mummy that we used to go see back in the ’40s.”
As he recounts the progression of his artistic style, Stegall digs a cardboard box out of the closet and starts to pull out hundreds of pen-and-ink drawings, each covered with patterns: crosses, diagonals and right angles.
In the early ’70s, he was making up to 50 of these a day, reducing everything to line and pattern. In the course of making a 1,000 or so of these drawings in an unconscious, almost automatic, fashion, the lines began to connect. This led to the creation of shapes that could be filled in, and hence, his obsessive exploration of color, which continues to inform his art to this day.
Sacramento artist and former SN&R art critic Tim White, who has reviewed many of Stegall’s solo shows, says he was “blown away” upon viewing the artist’s work for the first time.
While Stegall’s work may look simple, White says, “there’s a sophistication and a nuance in the color relationships and composition; his color work is masterful.”
Back at Stegall’s apartment, Bows & Arrows co-owners Trisha Rhomberg and Olivia Coelho are visiting to pick out art for the exhibit. All three bubble with enthusiasm, their words overlapping, as he leads them from room to room and back again, and they begin to place tape on works they want to hang in the gallery.
Stegall’s time at Sac State, where he earned both his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Fine Arts, was clearly formative. Some of the instructors he had at that time are well-known today, including Jim Nutt and his wife Gladys Nilsson, both founding members of the Chicago Imagists art movement.
“There was a lot of unrest in ’67, demonstrations on campus. People were going to the draft board and burning their [draft] cards and coming back with cuts, giving fiery speeches. It was very unsettling—a lot of crazy energy,” Stegall says.
“It was going nuts over at the art department. We discovered old clothes and thrift stores—you had the hip look and the straight hair and all of that on the other students, and we’re over there tripping out on the ’30s and ’40s, girls are wearing high heels. We had a fabulous time.”
One piece that Rhomberg particularly enthuses over shows Stegall’s early Modernist influence, particularly the work of Paul Klee. It’s painted in chunky oils, with an abstract human figure. Stegall says the painting is at least 50 years old; he agrees to include it in the show, but not to sell it.
He can trace the Modernist influence back to a community-college teacher in Fresno in the early ’60s. This professor introduced him to the Modernists, such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, and took his early interest in cartooning into an avid interest in fine art.
Soon, almost every piece of art in the apartment has a piece of tape on it, including some atypically large-scale ’80s-era paintings. Then, Stegall excavates some smaller enameled works out of the closet and points out a painting that was inspired by a piece from contemporary art star Olafur Eliasson’s show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Despite this hint that he stays somewhat abreast with the art world, Stegall said that there is not a lot that interests him currently in the Sacramento art scene.
“I’m just looking for some good pure painting,” he says.
When asked where his art will go next, Stegall confesses that he isn’t quite sure.
“I just feel that my work has been taking me in the right direction,” he says. “I’m knowing less as I go along, rather than more.”