In Light of Father and Son

In Warren Chang’s first self-portrait, executed in 2000, the year he decided to leave the commercial art world to focus on fine art painting, the artist’s eyes appear to be unfocused, in shadow.  There is a roughness to the work that seems not so much casual or deliberate or tentative as exploratory.  The sharpest edge in the image lies at a corner of the artist’s easel, as if to point the way forward.

Chang, whose paintings of the last dozen years have been gathered for a superb exhibit at the Pacific Grove Art Center, works in a precise, luminous style inspired by a lineage of painters going back to Rembrandt.  His paintings of people at work glow with empathy.  That glow is also present in his beautiful rendering of the complexities of light on the Central Coast.  Examine the gray, lowering sky in “Twilight in Santa Cruz” (2009; shown above), in which the heaviness of the fog above and the vastness of the field below are reflected in the weary eyes of a man who gazes out from the image: a lone man containing multitudes.  The painting speaks of suffering and toil, yet there is something resolutely alive in his face, an openness to connection, a desire to have his burden acknowledged.

Another self-portrait, this one with his young son (“Father and Son,” 2009), frames a scene of the artist and his child in a golden light.  Books, art, nature, the importance of family and the steady pursuit of beauty and meaning—these elements contribute to an atmosphere of focus and calm, making the painting something of an idyll for the viewer. 

That quality of focused calm is also present in a wonderful companion exhibit by Namgui Chang, Warren’s father, lending a spirit of generational resonance to both men’s shows.

Born in 1925, Namgui came to study at UC Berkeley as a young man; the onset of the Korean War prevented him from returning home, and he was soon recruited to teach Korean to American soldiers at the Defense Language Institute, in Monterey.  He settled there and raised a family.  A self-taught artist, his paintings reveal a kind of soft attention to the things unseen, to the deeper quiet under the surface. 

In the watercolor “Morning at the Temple” (1997), one of several paintings depicting Chang’s native Korea, birds fly to and from a nest against a gorgeous yellow sky.  It is a painting about home, the nests we leave and those we return to in our memories.  In “Rocky Hills in Autumn” (1988), another watercolor, the sky itself is liquid, as if the entire scene were underwater, a foregrounded red bush brilliantly aglow with reflection.

Namgui has also painted scenes of Monterey, including the striking “Deforestation; Tears of Pines” (c. 1960), which depicts how the land was gouged open to create the quarry in Del Monte Forest.  The furrowed rivulets of soil weep downward to a layer of blood-red earth, exposed and stripped-bare, still speaking to the viewer of its pain.

Warren Chang and Namgui Chang, at the Pacific Grove Art Center, 568 Lighthouse Avenue, through May 24.