It may be surprising to learn that, as an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, Terry St. John studied sociology, not the fine arts. By the time he fell in love with painting, he was a college senior and deep into the throes of his social science degree. But that didn’t stop him from pursuing art. He took lessons from a friend who was studying under Richard Diebenkorn at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now called the California College of the Arts) and immersed himself in an artistic social circle. St. John recalls how “above all else, I just wanted to paint paintings. Painting somehow gave me an opening to the future and a sense of hope… it was salutary.”
Diebenkorn’s indirect influence on his art by way of his friend is still evident in St. John’s work today, as is the art of others involved in the Bay Area Figurative Movement, including David Park and James Weeks. Like Weeks—who St. John studied with in 1960 prior to pursuing an MFA at the California College of Arts and Crafts—St. John also focuses on strong forms, a wide spectrum of saturated colors, and the play of light. His paintings, however, are much less precise, much freer, and far looser than Weeks’s. Though he uses color blocking to build his compositions' basic scaffolding, St. John allows his brush to generously drag numerous colors through different forms, thereby diffusing edges and enhancing movement. In Diablo (2010), for example, the hilltop appears to practically explode into the sky, which is itself nearly indivisible from the ocean. A brush carrying yellow, white, beige, and blue paint forges textured strokes that zip across the bottom of the painting, asking us to consider what they are and why they are there.
In the last two years, St. John’s paintings have become increasingly abstract. They are still figurative in that the curve of a model’s torso, the mass of a hillside, or the expanse of a field remain recognizable. But these newer works introduce an extra dimension that has, paradoxically, served to simplify them. Given St. John’s attention to light, this push toward abstraction is in many ways part of a natural evolution. “Light is transformative,” the artist explains, “it impacts everything I do. As a landscape painter, the time of day you paint makes a big difference.” St. John—who always paints directly from his subject matter—notes how the high-noon sun bleaches out all shadow and that it’s not until later, when the sun is setting, that more pronounced shadows start to create interesting patterns and dramatic tension. But rather than picking one “moment” to paint, St. John harnesses the movement of the sun and welcomes the fresh forms it offers as he collapses its arc into a single painting.
Though he relies on fluorescent and incandescent lights when painting models in his studio, St. John foregrounds light indoors just as much as he does when painting outside. In fact, he creates what he refers to “living room-landscapes” for his models, which he fills with exotic plants and a healthy dose of ersatz decor. Verdant and unfolding, with highly tactile surfaces akin to topographic maps, these rooms figure as extensions of his landscapes. And while the model is always important in that she’s a human being whose unique personality influences the artist and thus the painting, her weight is nevertheless equal to that of every other element in the composition. The model’s features in Woman Landscape (2013), for example, are not treated with a sense of preciousness you might expect from a figure-painter; even her face is rendered using the same striated smudges and strokes used to articulate her surroundings. She is one part of a gestalt that could not exist without her, without the anchoring wedge of green to her right, the vertical partitioning of sea and sky across the upper register, or any other element in the painting.
It is through his masterful use of light that St. John is able to fold his model into the overall composition, deftly weaving her body into the surrounding environment. To ensure his paintings cohere as successful abstractions, St. John flips them upside down. Doing so enables him to divorce himself from the subject and arrange forms, lines, and colors so that they agree and flow as a whole. Recent extended working trips to Thailand have continued to sharpen his ability to see such patterns and relationships. After having lived and practiced in the Bay Area almost exclusively, Thailand offers him the peace, quiet, and freedom necessary to rethink the fundamentals of painting: “I have no responsibilities in Thailand. In Thailand, I am free to absorb all that’s around me, to think deeply about light and form, to focus on my painting and what’s before me.”
Born in Sacramento, CA, in 1934, Terry St. John earned his BA in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley in 1958 followed by an MFA from the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1966. From 1970 until 1990, St. John was curator of modern painting at the Oakland Museum of California, after which he served for six years as the chairperson of the art department at the Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, CA. His art can be found in the permanent collections of the de Young, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; the Oakland Museum of California; the San Jose Museum of Art; and the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA.