Steadfast and unfaltering, the casino slot machines of Wayne Thiebaud's Two Jackpots, painted in 2005, convey a sense of permanence and monumentality as they loom largely in the immediate foreground of the picture. Easily considered one of the foremost painters of the age, for over seventy years Thiebaud has captivated critics and viewers alike with his unopposed mastery of capturing the true essence of the objects that he paints. Possessing an interest in the everyday and prosaic, Thiebaud's canvases have captivated and continued to be critically revered in the way he takes commonplace material and transforms and uplifts it to a new plane through his manipulation of paint to evoke shadows, light and the glistening surfaces of his objects. Two Jackpots captures the integrity of the machines, while at the same time giving them an uncanny sense of humanity, taking away the stark mechanical feel of the objects. A reprise of a work he did on the same subject in the 1960s, Thiebaud's revision of this subject matter forty years later is an indicator of how he works and paints his subjects basing it mostly on memory rather than from life, demonstrating how his vantage point has changed over the years.
Continually defying categorization, critics have struggled to properly "place" Thiebaud neatly into a contemporaneous art historical movement. While he first gained notoriety in the 1960s for his depictions of pies and cakes that seemed to fit nicely in step with the Pop Art movement, his work can much more accurately be located within Realism and the European tradition of nature morte. Often critically compared to the master Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin for his incredible abilities of rendering objects with great detail and vitality, Thiebaud's object paintings possess a sense of energy that effectively allows the viewer to envision the work and almost real. Pulling from a myriad of sources, including this European tradition, his experience with East Coast Pop Art and his natural predilections towards his native California, Thiebaud has perfected his ability to distill an object from its surroundings, allowing his subject, whether it be a slot machine, a slice of cake, or can of paint, to shine against its minimal background. In this way, the artist effectively has the ability to rise up the contemporary, everyday object dramatically enabling it to be repositioned and reconsidered in this new non-narrative context.
First inspired to paint a jackpot machine during his trips to the casinos of Lake Tahoe, California, the subject not only embodies a personal memory for Thiebaud, but also conjures specific emotions for the viewer. Since the initial invention of the modern slot machine in 1887 by Charles Fey in San Francisco, the public has reveled in the possibility to win big by performing the simple act of pulling a lever. The excitement and exhilaration caused by this quick motion and the short moment between action and result would cause anyone's heart to skip a beat as the player anticipates a successful outcome. It is not only luck, but a positive mental attitude that people attribute to successful gambling, and therefore the double slot machines act as stand-in proxy for this uplifting feeling. Noting coaxingly the price of just 5 cents, how could the player refuse with so little at stake? It is not only the desire of winning, of being lucky, but the way in which one anthropomorphizes the machine itself that creates an attraction to Thiebaud's Two Jackpots. In an interview where he discussed his earlier painting of the same subject, Jackpot Machine, painted in 1962, Thiebaud explained that they "represent an odd extension of the human configuration in that they have arms...and sort of eyes" (W. Thiebaud, quote reprinted in J. Binstock, "Wayne Thiebaud's 'Jackpot Machine,'" American Art, Vol. 10, No. 2, Summer 1996, p. 80). Indeed, the two figures appear caught up in a delicate dance; the male, slightly larger than the female, with each other's reflection in the other's upright mechanical lever that easily becomes a hand, while the picture display and coin slot mimic the human visage.
Hailed for breathing new energy into the previously staid still-life genre, Thiebaud sets himself apart from other object painters through his process. Rather than drawing from life or from a photograph, Thiebaud instead recalls upon the memory of the object which he chooses to capture. This practice results in a slanted rendering of his subject; for Thiebaud, the object's memory remains independent of how it might have existed in the real world. The "real" object, therefore, is not a part of the artist's process; it is the remembered notion of the pie case, the hot dog stand, or the jackpot machine, that becomes the subject of his canvases.
Reprised after forty years, the present lot, Two Jackpots, serves as a relic; a monument to a specific moment in the artist's memory. Not only is it crucial that Thiebaud chose to return to this same subject matter as both a personal exercise and a continual exploration of the subject matter of his memories, but it also now serves as a nostalgic rendering of cultural historical moment, isolated from its original context. Taken out of situ of a casino in Lake Tahoe, the machine seems artless, superfluous and out of place in this current time. In 2005, Thiebaud allows the slot machines to exist in his mind as they would in 1962; the 5 cents now seem impossibly inexpensive, yet the machine still remains shiny and new. In all of his object paintings, Thiebaud maintains the hyper-real gloss and sheen that could only exist in his mental image of the object. Just as the fluffy white of a whipped meringue on a lemon pie entices the viewer with its memory, there is a dramatic sense of potential energy and anticipation that comes from Two Jackpots. Thiebaud's objects transport the viewer to that moment where the reality could have been that good and the anticipation that challenging to endure. Although dramatically different from his confectionaries, Two Jackpots provides the same sense of delayed gratification and eagerness for a reward from it. You can keep playing; each time you have renewed odds of success, so it is a constant reminder of the faith and belief of something good to come, just for another nickel.
Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920)
Oil on canvas
Signed and dated 'Thiebaud 05' (upper right); signed and dated again 'Thiebaud 2005' (on the reverse)
Wayne Thiebaud , 21st Century, Paintings, United States of America, Contemporary
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
48 x 60 in. (121.9 x 152.4 cm.)
Paul Thiebaud Gallery, San Francisco
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2005
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