Setrakian lays fresh paint on Bolinas Gallery


Rob Setrakian needs light bulbs.

It’s the afternoon before the opening of “Fresh Paint,” a new exhibit at the Bolinas Gallery featuring recent work from the renowned local painter alongside pieces by Southern California artist Dennis Hare, and many of the gallery lights need replacing.

Setrakian, ever amicable and easygoing in light jeans and a thin, black and silver mustache, isn’t the least bit fazed. He strolls through downtown Bolinas to the hardware store—stopping numerous times along the way for a quick hello from neighbors—and picks up a few packs of bulbs before returning to the gallery to proceed with the exhibition setup.

He begins at the wall nearest the entrance, hanging one of his paintings—a large, intricate oil work with soft edges and blended pastels—beside a similar-sized layered piece by Hare.

Setrakian moves farther along the empty gallery wall, deliberating over whether to place two of Hare’s smaller pieces together.

“What do you think?” the Stanford-trained painter asks aloud. “That’s not too crowded, is it?”

Like most of his art, Setrakian’s work on display for “Fresh Paint”—a title he says he came up with on the spot—leaves a lot of space for individual interpretation.

“It’s abstract—it comes from an abstract place,” he says. “It tries to be between earthly things and celestial things, historical things and futuristic things, via color and shape. It’s suggestive of things without norms. (It’s not) something that can only be read one way; it’s something of a timeless concept.”

Not that abstract means lacking poignancy.

Many of Setrakian’s pieces for the exhibit, through their use of deep, emotive shades and arresting, unconventional composition, invoke a profound, visceral melancholy—the result, Setrakian says, of a particularly somber personal period that saw the passing of both his father and longtime mentor, the former painter and Stanford educator Nathan Oliveira.

In one large canvas—a stirring painting called “Stella Two” in honor of a late, exceptionally beloved family pet—various shades of green and blue fade together seamlessly, almost like water, while the left half of the image is dominated by a dark, unsettling patch.

It’s not surprising when Setrakian mentions that he worked on the painting while sitting near a pool, absorbed in Stella’s death—the painter’s own grief transferred symbiotically into the canvas.   

“Everything that happens in your life—whether political, the good times, the bad times—when you step up to the canvas all these things are part of the conversation,” Setrakian says. 

Conversation is, in fact, the word Setrakian most frequently employs to describe his painting process. He says the dialogue occurs between the artist and his surroundings, the artist and the medium, even among the works themselves. In this way, a family of 20 or 30 pieces will evolve together, a continuing development that reflects an intimate, ever-changing relationship with the work.  

“I look at the whole group,” Setrakian says. “Who needs work right now?”

Most of Setrakian’s pieces displayed in “Fresh Paint” were begun and finished within the past year. There is one piece, however, that he recently came back to after having started 30 years ago—proof of the dynamic, enduring nature of the artist’s relationship with the art, as well as that of the art itself.

These are paintings, Setrakian says, “that when in a different light or when [the viewer is] in a different state of mind, something doesn’t feel the same. It has sort of a living quality that I can share.”

Setrakian, now 55, who is married with two adult children—his wife, Beth, recently opened Beth’s Community Kitchen in Mill Valley—has been painting professionally since his early 20s. Along with numerous shows in the Bay Area, his work has been exhibited in, among others, New York, Italy, and Los Angeles—where he says he once enjoyed excellent sales at a party thrown at the home of actor Richard Dreyfuss.

But it’s the Bolinas Gallery, a converted barn with more than a century of colorful history, where the local artist feels most at home.

As Setrakian continues setting up—measuring, hanging and deliberating, curious passersby occasionally peeking through the front glass doors—he says it’s always been this space that feels the most organic, the most intimate; later he’ll complement the empty room with a small table and chairs. 

Before the end of the evening the exhibit will be ready, the imposing white walls of the gallery rich with color.

Ready, that is, except for, some last-minute adjustments: like his painting, Setrakian conceives of the exhibit as an evolving, fluid process, subject to continuous modification.

“There are many days ahead of tweaking,” he says.


“Fresh Paint” is on display at the Bolinas Gallery through the end of the month, open on Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 6 p.m. There will be a closing reception on Saturday, January 28 from 2 to 5:30 p.m.