Jack Stuppin:
Sonoma Landscape


by Peter Selz
Professor Emeritus of Art History,
University of California at Berkeley

The area of Sonoma County near Bodega Bay and the sea is an arid land of rolling blonde hills spotted by clumps of dark green trees. Often the morning banks of fog blur the landscape, and then near midday the trees, the streams, the ocean, and the outcroppings of rocks appear with lucid accuracy gleaming once again in the California sun. This is a land in which the live oak, redwoods and cypress are still plentiful. Apple orchards and vineyards abound below the hills, golden with dry grass for much of the year. It is here, near the town of Sebastopol that the New York born Jack Stuppin found his sense of place and the inspiration to paint it. Twenty-five years ago the Sonoma Hills were delineated by the Christos' Running Fence which marked the hills, fields and Bodega Bay. But instead of intersecting the land, Jack Stuppin numbers among the artists who have chosen to paint the landscape en plein air once again.

John Constable, who was in fact one of the first plein air painters, wrote: "The landscape painter must walk the fields with a humble mind. No arrogant man was ever permitted to see nature in all her beauty." He painted the English countryside around Salisbury with amazing freshness and audacity, creating sketches in which every brush stroke conveys his understanding of nature and the revealing/concealing quality of its light. But in the early 19th Century the time had not yet come for the public to appreciate this kind of "unfinished" painting and Constable kept those masterpieces to himself, exhibiting only the finished oils which seem labored and prosaic by comparison. It was left to the Impressionists to astonish the public with their paintings in which forms were dissolved and dematerialized by light to depict the impression of optical manifestation. With the ensuing trends toward art which was no longer subject to the restraints of appearance, modernist art marginalized naturalist painting en plein air to something like an underground existence practiced largely by Sunday painters.

Jack Stuppin, no Sunday painter he, has been exhibiting his work since he was a painting student of Sam Tchakalian, Bill Allan and Jay de Feo at the San Francisco Art Institute in the late 1960's. For a good many years now, he has gone out each day from his beautifully located house in search of the right landscape. He drives on the country back roads, stops when he sees a captivating view, takes out his easel, canvas and acrylic paints, begins to picture what he sees and then, almost intuitively, organizes it into vibrant paintings. These are the works of an artist for whom a frequently painted view of a mountain, an apple tree, a field of flowers, scattered clouds or a winding creek is always a new experience. The scenery does look different every day and exciting things happen on the canvas each time Stuppin applies his brushes and vibrant colors.

The Estero Americano, a narrow stream as it meanders through Valley Ford towards the ocean, served as a subject for several of the artist's recent paintings. Painted at different times of day and season, the pictures display colors for the long hillside that vary from bright orange to tawny sand. In some landscapes there is a streaky sky, in others there are puffy clouds, changing the mood of the paintings. From the marshlands on the north side of San Francisco Bay, Stuppin made the fine painting, Bayland (2001), done on linen, as are many of his recent small acrylics. It is a composition of horizontal and curved honey-colored dikes set in blue water. The curves of the levee and the white ripples on the inlet at the bottom of the painting are echoed by the sweeping cloud formation in the sky. The artist insists that the little seascape and the clouds were painted as they actually appeared. This is also true of the flowering apple tree Upp Road Apples (2001), in which profuse blossoms, thousands of small diamonds, spread against the green grass with a purple Mt. St. Helena looming in the background. Writing about Stuppin's Apple Blossoms, the astute critic John Fitz Gibbon, tells us that we learn about the Earthly Paradise when we look at these paintings.

Mustard, Coffee Lane (2001) is one of the subjects of delectation the artist finds on his neighbor's property. He paints a field of flowering yellow mustard with large, strong Douglas firs on either side of the meadow opening up to distant hills. A light blue sky is animated by a flock of sharp diagonal clouds and a large billowy cloud over a tall tree. There is a sense of empathy with the land and sky. The joy and delight expressed in these pictures convey an authentic experience in seeing and painting.

It is worth noting that in spite of the vast difference in their paintings, Jack Stuppin would agree with Hans Hofmann, that "plastic creation asks for feeling into the essentiality of nature as well as the essentiality of the medium of expression." In his early years, before he turned to expressing himself by working directly from nature, Stuppin did paint in an abstract mode. In some of his recent paintings he has adopted a three-way process: he first paints the landscape en plein air in acrylic, then he makes a digital photograph of the work which serves him for a larger painting, done in oil in the studio. Even Claude Monet, the plein air painter par excellence, completed his great waterlily suite in the studio before hanging it in the l' Orangerie.

Jack's final oil versions are fairly large. Russian River at Willow Creek (2001), for example, measures 48" x 60", and unlike most of his paintings was done on canvas that is mounted on a wood panel. Transformed from the original plein air acrylic, the second version maintains the almost innocent freshness of the first state and maintains the vibrancy of color, now highlighted by the gloss of the oil surface. In all his paintings Stuppin maintains the bright light of the midday sun, even if they were painted in the early morning or toward dusk. We see a medley of colors in Stuppin's work. In this painting ultramarine trees rise above a gently curving apple green hill that is outlined by a narrow orange band. A claret colored group of rocks juts out from the banks of the light blue Russian River. Green, we know exists in the greatest variety of shades in nature and in this painting innumerable kinds of green pigments have been used. An even greater assortment of colors is found in a recent oil, St. Helena, Digger Bend, Fog (2001), which appears like a crazy quilt of brightly colored pieces. The landscape is surmounted by a purple Mt. St. Helena, which is a source of a great many of Stuppin's landscapes. We are reminded of Cézanne, who painted Mont Ste. Victoire sixty times over a period of 28 years. However, Cézanne analyzed the mountain into abstract components reconstructing it by his brush into a symphony of luminous colors, changing the history of painting. Jack Stuppin has not embarked on so ambitious a project; he is satisfied to reproduce the mountain, as it looks in its wide expanse - sometimes in a cerulean blue, at others in a stark pure purple. In the "Digger Bend" painting a white bank of fog spreads horizontally across the valley below the mountain. Under the fog are the blonde, curving hills, wide groups of trees, tilled fields, and small barns that are painted red, as is a small plot in the center of the canvas. The more we look at these paintings, the more we discover in the variegated landscape. In this painting as well as in St. Helena, Alexander Valley, tawny hills sweep down to cultivated fields, which are tilted upwards, minimizing perspective and reducing space toward the two-dimensional plane. In the "Alexander Valley" picture the composition is anchored on the right hand side by a grand conifer with widespread branches. Painting the scene as it appeared to him while standing at his portable easel, Jack Stuppin intuitively reorganized it into a structured pictorial composition. He once studied the art of flower arrangement in Japan, and in his choices of color as well as in his sense of organic order, this training clearly comes to the fore.

In his 1998 essay on Stuppin's paintings Donald Kuspit makes us aware of the "impending environmental holocaust, already in process" and this artist's "respect for nature's sheer givenness." Jack Stuppin is very much aware of the importance of conserving what is still left of the land. The beautiful forest on his property will eventually be put into a conservation easement. His joyous and vivid paintings in which the land is transformed into resplendent "land-scapes" are not only fine objects but reminders that the land must not be "developed" or destroyed and recall Wallace Stegner's warning in his famous "Wilderness Letter." In 1960 Stegner wrote:

"If we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it. We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring our-selves or our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope."