Donald Feasél stretches his painting style / Santa Rosa teacher unfolds hit-or-miss setups to produce his chancy abstractions

January 08, 2003, by Kenneth Baker, Chronicle Art Critic

Anyone who has followed the work of Bay Area painter Donald Feasel in recent years has seen it get looser and looser.

In his new work at Brian Gross, even brushwork has disappeared from all but one picture, "Nevis" (2000), which Feasel considers transitional.

"After the last show, I needed some kind of vacation from work with the brush," Feasel said. "I worked on seven paintings over five years, and five survived to make up that last show. The rest were run into the ground. What I did in those paintings was develop a structure and then swamp it, trying to force some kind of unexpected resolution out of the stuff happening."

The new paintings take "swamping" more literally than Feasel intended when he spoke. They are wildly eccentric abstractions, made by pouring fluid acrylic over unprimed canvas carefully propped to create folds.

"When I used the brush," Feasel said, "the actions would be assigned a meaning. I needed some way to work where there'd be some distance between the gesture and the meaning."

Pouring liquid paint and letting the pigment settle offered a means to "keep everything open and unpredictable," Feasel said. "The setups I use for staining can't really be repeated. They're pretty crude. I use a card table or a picnic bench, anything I can use to drape a canvas relatively flat, arranging folds with clamps, clips and maybe weights."

The failure rate of his new method is very high because "I'm incapable of testing anything, and I can't repeat anything," Feasel said. "When I get something interesting, it's like winning the Lotto."

A Southern California native, Feasel, 49, studied painting as an undergraduate at UCLA and as a graduate student, with Elmer Bischoff, Robert Hartman and David Simpson, at UC Berkeley in the early '80s. He has lived in the Bay Area ever since and teaches at Santa Rosa Junior College.

Bischoff (1916-1991) and Hartman were living links to the Abstract Expressionism that has long been one of Feasel's sources.

"Everyone who paints at school experiments with flowing paint," Feasel said.

"There's a kind of obligatory practice of Abstract Expressionism. But a lot of it stays dormant until later and then resurfaces when you feel some need of a change."

His recent paintings respond to sources less obvious than Abstract Expressionism. He has looked hard at the stain paintings of Morris Louis (1912- 1962) and Helen Frankenthaler, but favors a palette of earth tones even bleaker than Louis at his darkest.