Artist Michael Tompkins is best known as a painter of still lifes, but he earned early recognition for his meticulous studies of the landscape surrounding Davis, California, where he attended school. Tompkins settled in the East Bay in 1987, and two years later moved to Rodeo, a refinery town. The wide canvases that had once served his valley landscapes were now adapted to painting the East Bay sprawl. It, too, was expansive, but with a watery atmosphere and low sky, unlike that of California’s central region.
The views from his studio roof held their own appeal. In a handful of compositions, Tompkins tackled the urban jumble by combining sketches of actual sites in Crockett, Rodeo, and Pinole and depicting them in his usual horizontal format. The forms he presented were not unlike the cans, bottles, and books of the new still-life works that he was also exploring. Rather than painting the vista with verisimilitude, he sought to portray the blurring of municipal boundaries and the diffuse quality of Bay Area color and light. East Bay is such a composite study of industrial rooftops, oil tanks, and refinery stacks. The poetry of their arrangement is ultimately Tompkins’s subject in this painting, as it is in his still-life works. The formal play between shapes and the wisps of rising steam suggest an activity and rhythm not typical of Tompkins’s classically still style, making this painting an important record of the artist’s development.