Wayne Thiebaud's finger-lickin', retina-poppin', cliff-hangin' art--in a 25-year retrospective exhibition at the Newport Harbor Art Museum--hits you like the spring-loaded lever of a pinball machine. Little wonder, then, that he is permanently branded a Pop artist.

The label was Thiebaud's ticket to fame in the early '60s, when his friendly paintings of cakes, pies, gum-ball machines and toys hit New York--fresh from Sacramento. They were immediately adopted as California cousins of Andy Warhol's soup cans and Roy Lichtenstein's comic strips. The similarities are obvious: Thiebaud paints ordinary objects in bright, clear colors, lining them up in rows on bakery counters or isolating them as contemporary icons.

But so are the differences: Unlike Pop's emulators of commercial reproduction, Thiebaud so glories in paint that he twirls it in peaks, combs it in furrows and slathers it on like meringue. At 65, he still finds frosting a cake a "thrilling" experience, and it shows in his paintings. When his subjects are baked goods, paint almost becomes the object depicted.

While Pop artists ironically criticize consumerist excess, Thiebaud lovingly remembers his subjects and celebrates gastronomic rituals. "Irony makes me nervous. It's too much like standing on Jell-O," says the artist whose identification with food extends to his analogies. Furthermore, he has been "too lucky" to "undercut" his work with social criticism.

The exhibition at Newport Beach (a traveling show organized by Karen Tsujimoto for the San Francisco Museum of Art, and sponsored at Newport by the Irvine Co.) should clarify the critical broth that Thiebaud has stewed in since he was stuck on Pop's back burner more than 20 years ago. Should, but probably won't because the art world loves its labels. They are almost as comforting as seeing the work of someone who enjoys painting as much as Thiebaud.

Well, never mind. Bring on the comfort and, with it, more serious matters, such as Thiebaud's unique variety of realism. It's a method of depiction that exaggerates and abstracts while never losing sight of the object.

The transformations he accomplishes in still lifes are partly the result of working from memory (his "liberator from the tyranny of nature"), but the memory is shaped by experience. Born in Arizona, in 1920, and raised in Long Beach by his Mormon family, Thiebaud worked in restaurants and developed an active interest in the theater during his youth. As a young adult, he yearned to be a cartoonist but drifted into commercial art to make a living. He later returned to school to study fine art and theater design in Northern California, eventually landing a teaching job at Sacramento Junior College and making a local name for himself as an artist and stage set designer. UC Davis hired him as a professor of fine art in 1962 and he remains there, a passionately committed teacher.

In the still lifes, figure paintings, landscapes and cityscapes exhibited at Newport, Thiebaud adapts commercial art's techniques of exaggeration and caricature, and incorporates his stage experience to dramatize the ordinary. His foodstuffs and objects are theatrical stars with bright blue shadows and rainbow halations; his figures are exposed to the blinding light of the stage and a painter's exploration; his landscapes and cityscapes turn San Francisco's steep streets into roller-coaster shoots and Northern California cliffs into dizzying plunges.

Thiebaud characterizes himself as a "problem painter" who chooses a subject for its formal properties. He intends to represent objects without literary or psychological interpretation, but they often have dual personalities. A row of "California Cakes" becomes a chorus line, poised for action. And Thiebaud himself notes that "Various Cakes" doubles as a display of baseball caps whose bills are shadows.

A 1966 painting of "Star Boat" recalls craft that came near Thiebaud's home when he lived on the Sacramento River, but he admits it's "halfway between a toy and a real boat." What interested him at the time was not so much the object itself but how its reflected form mirrored and yet diverged from the one above the creamy water.

Critics often note that this ostensibly cheerful art is laced with nostalgia. The mood wasn't intentional, according to the artist who attributes its presence to his habit of working from memory instead of from actual objects: "I suppose you tend to remember and codify those things that meant something and continue to live in your memory.

"Chardin would have thought the objects he painted were very ordinary, yet now they are so exotic, we only see them in museums and antique stores. It's hard to imagine our 1985 Hondas being viewed the same way, but it's true that things like patterns of food processing are laden with time. I remember the old meringues that were burned on top and had a particular style of peaking. It's funny how the fabric of our institutions and our patterns do stamp this measure of distinction upon everything--food, toys, clothing, whatever. You can see why Plato took the square as a transcendent reality and why purist abstract painters yearn to have an eternal construct. It's a marvelous ambition."

If nostalgia adds a subtle flavor of sadness to the show, an unexpected element of tragedy intensifies it. Thiebaud merrily points this out in a painting called "Fish on a Platter." "It's a great tragedy, in a way," he says of the poor dead fish, "but we put lemon on it."

Once he plants the idea, tragedy is all the more obvious in luscious paintings of cut flowers and plucked fruit, a van disappearing over a hill and a "Boxed Rose" that resembles a casket. Dark backgrounds on 1983 depictions of men's shoes, candy apples and a tube of lipstick heighten the melancholy mood but also bathe it in romantic elegance.

"Woman in Tub," a spare painting of a woman's head resting on the back of a long white form, recalls Jacques Louis David's renowned bathtub portrait, "The Death of Marat," but Thiebaud's figures generally do not inspire thoughts of mortality. He has his greatest success in avoiding interpretive readings in figure paintings--with a single subject isolated on a stark background--yet these purposely inexpressive works are also his least appealing efforts. Though their deadpan, life-size presence is arresting, the people are stiff and their flesh clammy. A bikini-clad woman and a man hunched over a book become intimidating monoliths. The clinical light flooding such figures tends to draw visitors toward the warmth of a smaller "Girl With Pink Hat" and to landscapes in following galleries.

Among the Yosemite peaks, vertiginous San Francisco cityscapes and teeming freeway interchanges, Thiebaud is at his chattiest and most interpretive. These paintings are so much fun and so imaginative that you find yourself reading them for kicky details: little trees that tip right over as they follow the course of a plummeting slope; a billboard bearing the outsize image of an automobile, perched high above freeways; streets that race from top to bottom of a canvas as if they were well-oiled zippers.

The landscapes also offer the greatest range of techniques and materials. While the early still lifes are solidly built of thick oil, the landscapes include washy veils, rich overlays of pastel and impressionistic mottling.

Thiebaud has taken the greatest liberty with landscape because of the subject's vastness. He says the theme offers "opportunities for a whole different set of problems"--often involved with organic structure. But his is always a multifaceted process of discovery that takes off from replication by incorporating "memory, caricature, formulations, designing" and inspiration from other artists.

"I'll look at Morris Louis and steal that flow thing that looks like a river or erosion, and try to find structural entities which become a landscape. There's a pictorial aspect of nature that allows you to build up a rock the same way as you make a cake." With that remark, his recent work comes full circle--back to the confectionery window.

Cakes, rocks, freeways or figures, Thiebaud's inventive painting all gets classified as realism--but not with his blessing. "Real painting is when people paint squares and circles, things that are measurable and identifiable," he says. "The kind of painting I pursue is fictional painting, which allows for all kinds of combinations of things: exaggeration, the introduction or interruption of logic, the fascination with attempting to merge several realities or realistic sense impressions simultaneously.

If conventional definitions of realism don't suit Thiebaud, the idea of reality as a common experience is precious. "The modern movement has put a tremendous emphasis on everyone's own private reality," he muses. "I think it's too much to do with private interest and we suffer a loss of tangible reciprocal allegiances. I pursue painting with the clear intention that it relates to a number of people. What interests me is shared reality. I don't even like to eat alone."

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