Materials laid bare: Revealing painting with Josh Peters
Away from your paintings, and away from our conversation, I am getting stuck. This often happens when I am writing, and usually I’ll do something surprising to break the dam. Think of this email as that surprising thing. Also, I’m working my iPhone left-handed, which puts my brain in another place.
My difficulty in this situation is somewhat apt, given your own experience of taking an enforced time away from painting, then struggling to return to it. The work we are talking about, the work that came after that fallow (?) period, is different from past paintings; these paintings are abstract, not figurative. I would say better that these paintings embody similar moods yet don’t rely a figure or a landscape to persuade me. These new paintings, being less direct and slower to apprehend, open outward and offer more, they aren’t limited to a specific story or allusion. They make me wonder, and therefore I look longer. (This is a long paragraph to communicate what we covered quickly face to face in the studio.)
What happened for you, in the time of not making, and then in the time of your struggle to paint, to – in your words – make paintings that look like “Josh Peters” paintings? When I visited your studio, you told me about making three paintings, not trusting them, and leaving them while you took a vacation to an exotic locale. What was the trip like in regards to the paintings waiting for you back home?
This process, whether planned or not, seems common to the creative life: you work, things feel right – the work says what you mean and asks questions that push you forward – then something happens to the process, and you stop. You pick up again and you make new work but you doubt it, you struggle to find your voice, find it, see that it is different but related, and so on.
At the end of last summer, I found myself at loose ends – for the first time in a few years, I wasn’t under any outside pressure to produce work. Also, I was beginning a new teaching job, and I was spending most of my energy on developing a curriculum for my drawing classes. All of this resulted in a couple of months away from my studio. By the time I got back there, I was in a different place..
At first I did try working in the manner that I had been for the past six years (figurative paintings based on film stills) but I didn’t feel the same enthusiasm, and this showed in the resultant paintings. I went back to my earliest interest in painting, which was about the materials laid bare, paintings which reveal their own making to the viewer.. all of the steps visible, transparent. Almost an x-ray.
Right. I recall you talking about an early professor who made a painting that struck you deeply, he applied pure pigment to canvas and you loved the depth of color and its physical presence. Didn’t you say that the particular size of this work has become significant for you? Is using that size some kind of home base for your work?
Can we talk about the physical relationships among the bodies of work? The abstracted mountain shape in Painting #1 feels related to mountain motifs in your previous paintings, as does your use of texture to achieve depth. I remember finding the colored shapes in Garten similar to earlier, less abstract work. In the representational paintings these outlines and textures would be cropped portions of landscapes and not things unto themselves; here the shapes are just that – themselves.
Yes! My first painting teacher ever, Alberto Rey, made some paintings with the most sumptuous surfaces.. using powdered pigment poured over enamel. I remembere that one of these paintings was a particular size (40 x 48) that’s become talismanic for me.. as you note, it was comforting to go back to as a starting point as I was reinventing my work.
In fact, I was thinking a lot about the kind of surfaces that I wanted these paintings to have. I wanted them to have feeling of absolute inevitability about them, to look as if they had always existed. The integrity that only something that is made with a complete lack of self-consciousness can have.. cracks in pavement, years of wear on the exterior walls of buildings.. The photographs of Aaron Siskind captured this and the paintings of Antoni Tapiés literalized this. The work of Cy Twombly, came to mind, as well. It’s not a new thing for a painter to be interested in..
One of the ways that I came up to create marks at random was to wet and cover the back of the canvas with paint which would then bleed through to what would become the front of the painting. I would give up control completely and what I would end up with would be a complete surprise.
The paintings that were started this way were finished by going to the other extreme. Spending days and weeks just looking at these images and then, after much deliberation, adding some color, shapes.. whatever the painting called for. Between these to extremes, hopefully an interesting tension is created.. a balance.
At the birth of every painting, initial marks are made which have a certain raw energy.. usually this stage is quickly followed by others in succession, as layers of paint are added. What I’m interested in right now is preserving the freshness of the first touches, yet ‘finishing’ the painting with other elements. This is highly subjective but any artist who is showing his or her paintings has this confidence in their choices.
The viewer needn’t realize that if a certain shape was one inch longer or a certain color a shade darker, that the painting wouldn’t work. But in the paintings that I like the most and am interested in making, this is the case. The balance is that fragile. It should go without
saying that I make many paintings which get discarded.
These are ‘just’ how the paintings are made, though.. more important to me is that in addition to perhaps an intellectual appreciation of this would be that the viewer have a deeper, emotional experience of the work. This is my ultimate goal and maybe what you were referring to when you said that these paintings had the same feeling as the previous work, even without any (or in the case of Palace, 3am, nearly the same degree of) recognizable imagery or narrative. Maybe, as a viewer, you’d be more qualified as I am to talk about that feeling..
I feel of these paintings, and I hope they suggest to others, figures distorted by light – they are portrait format, after all – and I hope they feels like the people and stories (their connection to previous work), have dissolved into the medium, the paint, and what remains are the delicately figured surfaces.
In fact, some of them do have shapes coming in from the back, and these might be memories from the past work. The diffuse light in the new ones emphasizes the imprecision of memory. The past might be breath on a window.
One of the paintings we didn’t discuss is titled Speak, Memory. The title is taken from Nabakov’s autobiography. In this painting, clouds of gray press in from the back of the canvas, partially obscuring a line drawing on the front.. it’s as if a transmission is being interfered with..
Koh Chang does have some shapes made by the negative space of the dark green areas that echo the colored shapes in Garten. Koh Chang also looks like it could be an extreme close-up of one of my previous paintings.
Painting No. 1 was the first of the new paintings, and its ambiguous black ‘mountain’ can be considered to have the most direct connection to the older ones, but also Koh Chang, the most recent painting, is related to the older work, given the use of color and more traditional application and layering of paint. Full circle.. though in a different spot, as the circle is always revolving.
I’m glad you bring up Speak, Memory. Is literature very important to you in your work? You recommend books all the time – I don’t mean this as unusual, only that in relation to your work I got fixated on film. Can you elaborate on what Nabokov’s memoir means to you, and how it informs the painting?
It’s really the title of the book which appealed to me and which I felt fit the painting. I often name my paintings after songs, films, or literature… with the latter being the biggest influence on my work, actually. Maybe it’s because books require you to create your own visuals. In this case, as I’ve said, there is no specific connection with this book, though I did enjoy reading it very much. The title just came to mind after the painting was completed.
You speak of these paintings as “reveal(ing) their own making.” Is the making also the “half-remembered memories”? Or I should say among the half remembered-memories, for while I find cracks in the pavement and years of wear on the walls to imply human memories, these don’t offer longer narratives – as of passing individuals – but aggregate tales of our existence.
I hadn’t thought of that but yes, of course.. each painting is a record of the painter’s actions and becomes a sort of memorial after the painting and artist are separated.
Again, regarding memory, I feel like movies themselves are constantly in the state of being remembered, and the figurative paintings get me to that deja vu sensibility.
Koh Chang is in a way painted from real life. You took a photo of a sunset through trees, in Thailand as I recall, while you were feeling nostalgic for and worrying about your paintings. It is like a full circle: the first of the new paintings really broke free, yet has the familiar mountain symbol, as you continue working, the paintings lost more and more, becoming cloud-like and really abstract. Koh Chang brings the real world in yet feels abstract.
I really want to look again at the paintings that were on the wall behind us. I’ll check the images. Can you tell me about those two? The frame on one was interesting.
The one in the frame could have felt so unfinished (masking tape still on, etc) that I built the frame for it to underline that it was done.. this painting is perhaps the most frozen while still in the process of becoming. I wanted to capture that wild energy of emergence while still creating a balance that could please the eye and reward sustained looking.
I’m going to send along an artist’s statement that I’m working on, as well.. It’s interesting to me how much I learn in the process of writing about the work.
Josh Peters, 2012
This group of paintings attempts to harness the tension between opposites; the conscious and the unconscious, the accidental and the very deliberate.
The paintings are started either by wetting and painting the back of the canvas (thus seeping through to what will become the front) or by quickly and loosely covering the front of the canvas with a viscous mix of acrylic paint and liquid medium. Based on this haphazard
beginning, additional elements and textures are added to the painting – a delicate balancing act, as much of the initial layer is left exposed to interact with the carefully placed forms which make up the second layer.
The seeping paint gives a feeling of hazy recollection.. incomplete objects (a half-moon, the fragment of a shape created by enhancing areas of this random beginning ) add to this feeling of the half-remembered and ambiguous-but-allusion-laden. I am aiming for a poetic amalgamation of naked process and careful planning.
Above all, I want to freeze a painting while it is still in the state of ‘becoming’.. to capture that wild energy… yet achieve a sense of balance that is pleasing to the eye and rewards sustained looking.