Chiaroscuro, takeout and crystal orbs. These are but a few things viewers can expect while admiring Guy Diehl’s paintings in his exquisite “About Time” exhibition, showcased at San Francisco’s Dolby Chadwick Gallery. Through a series of fourteen paintings, Diehl orchestrates a viewing experience that acts as a celebration of art and life, connecting the past and present with the future. He is the maestro; we are his audience.
A major contemporary still life artist, Guy Diehl owned his craft in the Bay Area, studying under important first-generation photorealist and pop art masters such as Robert Bechtle, Richard McLean and Mel Ramos. Often described as a realist painter with a minimalist touch, Diehl has displayed his work in Bay Area galleries and numerous public collections for more than 40 years. But his talent and skills are, perhaps paradoxically, matched by his reluctance to embrace the spotlight. The artist instead rightfully centers his work.
Hanging on the wall at the entrance of the gallery, “Belonging” might strike viewers as one of Diehl’s most personal paintings in the series. The piece features objects ranging from a Japanese Shunga woodblock print to a colored cube, by way of an imposing sealed envelope. Each object is carefully chosen, carefully painted. The Shunga print depicts two lovers tenderly embracing each other in an idyllic illustration of love, but also evokes the whirlwind of emotions that comes with it: joy amid loss, pain and grief. Painted in the foreground, a three-faced cube represents the elusive existential equilibrium humans so often traverse. Placed behind the cube, a sealed envelope captures our imagination. Its content remains a mystery. This is Diehl’s way of inviting his audience to actively participate in rather than passively contemplate his work.
“About Time” is also a reflection on a not-so-distant past. “Take-Out Only” is a mini-series of four paintings within the collection itself. Each piece of work depicts white and transparent take-out containers and plastic cups. The paintings are products of the COVID-19 pandemic, having been painted during the imposed lockdown. In one of the paintings, a plastic clear cup filled with blood red liquid starkly emblazons the white of the containers. The red evinces the literal bloodshed of the pandemic, which exacerbated an Uber Eats-reliant culture already so present in society.
As viewers pursue their visit, Diehl absorbs them into his world — the art world. The exhibition is a celebration of art history, paying tribute to Diehl’s influences, with an array of his paintings titled “A Conversation with…” and in fact, Diehl opens a dialogue with artists like Italian painter Giorgio Morandi as well as American photographer Lee Miller. Just like Morandi, Diehl paints symmetrical objects in a simplistic form: the cylinder, rectangle, sphere. The sphere, most of all, is a recurring motif in ten of his paintings, while seven of them actualize the sphere as a crystal orb. Diehl’s reflexive orb encapsulates a world of possibilities and refers to the practice of scrying, in which the future appears in a crystal ball.
This crystal orb will remind some of painter Johannes Vermeer’s work, particularly his “Allegory of the Catholic Faith,” where a giant glass sphere hangs from a ribbon. And that is exactly what Guy Diehl, the painter-conductor, intends. The work featured at the Dolby’s exhibition is nothing less than a powerful homage to 17th century Dutch Baroque masters. The spirit of these ancient painters is also invoked through Diehl’s use of light. Each painting is a delicate struggle between shadow and light. As Diehl says, the “task of lighting a scene is an art in itself.”
Although Guy Diehl recalls a multiplicity of disparate artists, “About Time” is very much his own creation. Often noticed for his hyperrealism, the artist does not paint every minute detail — because he is so skillful, he does not need to. Diehl’s paintings remind us that life is too messy, too complex for every detail to be afforded attention. The power of these paintings pierce like their creator’s pencil, through the (he)art.