The fresh sights
D.A. Bishop at John Natsoulas Gallery, Davis
Ironically, a ’57 Chevy station wagon—tailfins glinting in the natural light diffused through the second-story windows of Natsoulas’ largest exhibition space—is the first object that gallery-goers notice as they enter.
Parked in a corner, this old car is no art object; the original factory paint job is long gone, replaced by layers of gray primer and an unfortunately bilious shade of mustard slathered on the tailgate. But it looks like a comfortable and reliable ride; inside there’s a suitcase, a picnic cooler and a rolled-up sleeping bag; its owner could appear at any moment, hop in, back out the gallery’s double glass doors and be back on the road any minute.
Santa Rosa-based landscape artist D.A. Bishop traveled in this very station wagon from coast to coast eight times, looking, he says, “for the fresh sights.” His faithful three-dimensional ride is echoed in acrylic paintings ranged on the walls around its temporary parking space. In two-dimensional form, it is a touchstone playing various compositional roles. In “East of Delta II” (acrylic on panel, 1998) the ‘57 Chevy is also seen from the rear parked by the side of a red dirt road, as if the artist got out, walked back about 50 feet and set up his easel in the middle of the deserted road. Balanced compositionally by a Highway 50 road sign, its glowing taillights and a red stop sign are the brightest things visible. The wide vista of fields and sky is painted in broad, coarse strokes, as if the viewer were looking through a smudged windshield.
All of the paintings contain this same sense of a timeless pause. The station wagon is precisely parked under the burger joint sign in “Supreme Burger” (acrylic on panel, 1996). The lines of its fenders, roof and windows parallel a low white wall in the background that leads the eye on toward the vanishing point at the end of the street. But Bishop, described in the exhibition brochure as “a prudent man, tidy in his habits—thoughtful [and] wry insensibilities,” made every second count during this pit stop. Though not revealed in reproductions, close inspection of the painting itself reveals within the lonely burger joint’s walls a busy maelstrom of brushstrokes. But the station wagon is, though parked, throbbing with nervous, faintly outlining strokes radiating out into the creamy whiteness of the wall behind it. Like Walt Whitman, Bishop was itching to “take to the open road.” Farther down the gallery wall, an untitled view of the Chevy expresses the mile-gobbling pace of Bishop’s travels; at some point the grill was removed, now the space between the headlights looks like a gaping maw and in the strong, back-streaming strokes, there’s the feeling of wind and speed.
The subtext of many travels—escape—is palpable in the compositional sweep of “Meyersdale Intersection” (acrylic on panel, 2001). From the point of view of a car turning a corner, the eye is pulled from a cluster of gloomy dark houses to the left along a wide white building curving around the corner and leading on toward a highway in the distance. Like countless travelers before him, Bishop followed the timeless allure of self-discovery. Posted on the gallery wall among his paintings is the admonition, "If your plot is not making itself obvious, if your characters aren’t revealing themselves—take it on the road. Let the story travel. Sometimes it finds itself." The immediacy and freshness of these paintings no doubt emerged as pre-conceptions fell by the wayside, probably about the same time the map sitting on the three-dimensional ‘57 Chevy’s dashboard got wadded up into an unreadable ball.