Graham Peacock:
Paint, Process and Spirit

Roger H. Boulet. "Graham Peacock: Paint, Process and Spirit".
November 21 - January 16 (1988)

I. Genesis

In the beginning, pools of acrylic paint lie in troughs created by canvas spread over a deep and irregular wooden grid-work on the studio floor. The paint sits over several days and nights. Fans circulate air over the surface, but there are no ripples. As water evaporates and the paint dries, a skin forms on the surface. It shrinks and separates. Now and then, the surface is activated by the addition of new colors, paint of varying density which floats over the other paint. There is some admixing. Objects may have been dropped in these strange, primeval-looking pools, objects such as canvas, or bits, chunks or sheets of dried acrylic paint. The paint dries, leaving strong ridges, wrinkles, fissures, bumps and other surface incidents. The troughs are cut apart and each single trough, each primeval paint pool, becomes a world onto itself. It is raised from the floor and moved to a wall. Its boundaries will be determined. The genesis is over. The canvas will be stretched and framed, to be considered now as a work of art, the result of a creative process. There is a master plan to this process. Before the troughs were filled with litres of paint, the artist charted out the stages of its evolution, stages in which amazingly intense pools of color are made to interact with other pools, pools within pools. 

II. Process

The origin of Graham Peacock's recent work can be traced back to 1982. On one work, Polo I, Peacock noticed that thick layers of drying acrylic paint caused a broad crazing effect, a light all-over crevassing which revealed the color beneath. The crazing was perceived as being akin to the underlying structure of conventional drawing, a network of lines which served to unify elements of the surface over a painted ground. Peacock realized the possibilities inherent in the actual chemical nature of paint laden with thick gel, and how it reacted to the process of drying. He began to explore and exploit these possibilities. Not content with commercially available gels, Peacock developed his own over a period of about 12 years, through trial and error. His intent was to create materials whose behavior could be controlled and predicted. His solution contained large amounts of water which meant that, as it evaporated, the The fissures and textures that form are unpredictable, but the artist acts as a catalyst, cause of an effect, provoking the reactions which create a type of drawing.

Little has been left to chance. Color, collage, the scale of the separations are determined, even though the configuration of the separation is largely unpredictable. Intervention is constant and calculated. The artist reacts to the process and the evolving activity in each pool. As paint is added, the charts may be amended or updated, then discarded. The way a work appears on the floor of the studio is strangely topographical. The way it looks on the wall can be quite different, since it becomes frontal and pictorial and is perceived as a work of art, a painting on the wall. The artist intervenes to define its borders, often according to the very topography, much as borders of so many countries or states follow the shores of rivers or lakes, mountain ranges, limits of geographical watersheds. In some recent works, the limits of the original troughs are preserved and the more conventional quadrilateral framework is restored, like latitudes and longitudes. In these works, the drying paint has recorded its recession by a distinct aura-like mark, suggestive of tide lines. paint itself would form a skin and shrink. Layers of it would recede from other layers to expose the colors underneath. This polychromatic approach is new to abstract art which, for the most part, has continued the traditional pictorial relationship of figuration-over-ground. Some of Peacock's works are still essentially explorations of figure-over-ground, but others seem to eliminate the suggestion of a painted ground underlying the drawing. Much of Peacock's work depends on a tight juxtaposition of colors which eclipse the ground completely. Paint poured in layers of color forms a polychromatic all-over drawing when the color layers separate to reveal the others, rather than a single color which could be seen as a ground. The first works were made in one large, single trough. Individual paintings, entities onto themselves, were identified in the dried product. The process of "editing" or "cropping" reinforces the color and the drawing, maximizing its effect, and finds the best composition in the seemingly random shapes that emerged when the waters receded from this joyous flood. The happiest shape made the painting look singular, where the patterning was transformed and colors found both their strength and their significance. Color and drawing fill out to the shape. The edges of the picture are in slight tension with its contents a conventional rectangle would. 

III. Personal View

The traditional approach to a discussion of abstract painting and sculpture seems to be the description of its purely formal properties, its exploitation of the medium. This is how, we are told, painting as an art develops. Bernard Berenson is credited for stating that "art is great when the technical and spiritual advances progressing independently synchronize and give each other the hand." Most discussions seem to stress the technical advances. The spiritual, however, is a far greater realm. A discussion of the spiritual is inevitably subjective in nature, but is important because art is essentially spiritual, inasmuch as its process is fundamentally expressive. By its very nature, art has content. This content is not limited to providing a "message" for the world. Limiting art to being a vehicle for the transmission of moral values, or to being a vehicle for social change, is denying the basic freedom of the artist to determine what his work will be about. When we were discussing his work, Peacock told me that he wanted his painting "to be uplifting, joyous and inspiring." He feels no need to explore social issues. By its very nature, his painting and its process are to him "a celebration of life, of creation, an affirmation of the freedom and the boundless creativity of the human spirit." Thus, the only limitations to painting are to be found in its essentially material nature, which a painter cannot do without. Far from being a limitation, the material can be a constant source of innovation, of wonderment, of pleasure. It is an expanding universe whose limits are pushed by the desire of the human spirit to transcend matter itself. seem like an arbitrary imposition, an unfortunate architecture that weighs on the spirit. A more recent approach has been to subdivide the larger troughs into smaller ones. Peacock found that he could stretch these over a conventional rectangle because the polychrome field defined the shape. A very lyrical ''aura" appears near the edges of such works. In other instances, a long rectangular shape emerges as the best format for an elliptical pool. A painter's materials are governed by the laws of physics and the laws of chemistry. The color spectrum may teach us the physical laws of color, but chemistry can create its own laws. The admixture of blue and red does not always result in purple. The addition of white can affect or limit a paint's mixing potential. In the case of Graham Peacock's use of color, there are several concerns. A color may be chosen that will best reveal the drawing. In this sense, contrast is crucial. Peacock refers to the 'trinity': tone, temperature and intensity, as fundamental in his color choice. Beyond its purely visual properties, color has a characteristic expression, certain 'associations' for various people. Each color’s expression is tempered by its proximity to any other color, much the way the same musical notes in different combinations have very special powers of expression. But music is experienced over a specific period of time, and through the additional medium of the performer or interpreter. Color acts instantaneously and with such a complexity that we are often (if not usually) unconscious of its effect. The pleasure we take in pictures is a sensuous one, like music, and one that is like no other. We see color and it affects our spirit as do the sounds we hear. Was this red the color of anger, of passion? Why does it look so loud? What about the white next to it? Was it cold, like snow or milk, or was it like light itself, incandescent and burning? Why is this blue so quiet, why is this other blue so sad, or so peaceful, so soothing? We rarely ask ourselves such questions because we have usually passed on to the next painting. Contemplation entails lingering, savouring .... Each one of Graham Peacock's pictures has its own message, one of color, in new combinations and textures. We may be aware of how material is exploited in brave new ways, but we should also be aware that color has a spiritual effect on us, one that can be savoured and remembered. This occurs whether a painting is abstract or not. Some landscape painters, for instance, have become so associated with a type of landscape that we can no longer see the landscape except through the artist's vision. That vision may be poetic, and it enriches us with metaphor, beauty, and meaning. In its persuasiveness, however, it may prevent us from looking at the landscape without that vision - or from recognizing the vision of another artist. Our experience of seeing good pictures can therefore limit our appreciation of seeing new pictures. We know what we like and therefore feel justified in seeking more of the same, suspecting anything that may challenge or even affect our taste.

To see anew, we must shed old visions, old beliefs in what things should look like. The first recent Graham Peacock painting I saw was a work called All Out. Although I found it distasteful, it haunted me. I visited Peacock's studio some months later, and in less than an hour I became totally fascinated. Above and beyond the process of Peacock's technique, entrancing in itself, I found the works had an uncanny power to provoke reaction. This is largely due to Peacock's use of colour which is daring, adventurous and, at times, outrageous. It is also due to the unexpected, one might say erratic, shape of the paintings themselves. Beyond the surprises, there are curious discoveries to be made, art historical associations and an endless array of emotions brought on by Peacock's skilful and adventurous manipulation of the very materiality of a medium. His works have powers to shock, delight and arouse. An Olitski I recently saw in a private collection was as great an experience as any Rembrandt ever was (to my great surprise)! Ever since, I have tried to look at paintings with fresh eyes; to never allow my knowledge and memory of things seen to temper my spontaneous appreciation; to be open to the new. I have no sympathy for ideologies which would impose themselves on visual art, like an impediment. Graham Peacock's work has reinforced this attitude. I have forgotten what I wanted it to be, what it could or should be and I savour what it is. I doubt that I will ever forget its positive and fundamentally optimistic message. I too am reminded and I rejoice in the "boundless creativity of the human spirit." 


In 1986, Boston-based art critic Kenworth Moffett wrote a perceptive essay on the development of Abstract Art since the "first generation" abstract expressionists.' While praising the work of Jules , Olitski, whom he calls "our pre-eminent master," he discusses Olitski's influence on a whole generation of abstract painters after he had virtually abandoned colour in favour of a chiaroscuro effect in closevalued pigments bordering on the monochromatic. Moffett goes on to refer to this "same narrowing of color range" hanging "like a grey cloud over much - but not all - of the better abstract painting I saw on my last visit to Western Canada ...." Moffett then identifies what he perceives as an emerging group of younger abstract painters which "at its best is very radical." I have edited the following from the 20 pages of Kenworth Moffett's Artletter, available by private subscription. It originally appeared in March of 1986, in the form of two special supplements. The Edmonton Art Gallery is grateful to Mr. Moffett for allowing us to reprint excerpts here. 

Kenworth Moffett: "Within the work of this younger group, as well as in the work of the leading older members of the third generation, I see emerging a major shift in style or sensibility - the appearance of what might be called "Post Olitski" or "Post color field" or "third wave" painting. Below I list the general stylistic tendencies I discern. They are not all to be found in the work of any single painter and they are not yet as clearly stated as they eventually will be.

1. The color key expands from the dominance of middle or close valued color to include greater brightness, brilliance, saturation, and contrast. Sharp value oppositions again become important.

2. Contour or edge drawing reappears and now becomes intense, highly varied and        complex.

3.  Surface, which Olitski's spraying had already made tactile and subtly modulated, now is pushed much farther, becoming coarsely and even grossly physical. Related to this is the rethinking of the role of underpainting and of the support as a given flatness - or as a given material. Paint is piled on thickly and there are lots of collagings [sic] and mixing of foreign elements into the paint. Often the picture seems to break aggressively into the room. And it is the new boldness in the handling of textures that permits bigger contrasts of color and drawing. Another innovation is the way that a very sculptural surface is in some cases eliminating the need for a surrounding frame. (Certain works by Drapell and Brent are the best example.) This heavy physicality of materiality is the most novel of the new tendencies which I'm describing. It creates an expressionistic roughening - a rawness and coarseness -which relates most to first generation painting and makes second generation work seem more refined and controlled by comparison. The older masters who are most relevant to this style shift are Pollock (and not just his drip pictures), Hofmann, Gottlieb, and Still; from the second generation Louis and Noland." '...the '80s and the youngest painters are bringing in a far more coarsely physical and sculptural approach to the surface. Also, acrylics are no longer perceived only as a happy alternative to oils, but now as a whole new substance with its own unique physical properties and possibilities. Working with painters, the chemist Sam Golden of Golden Artist Colours Inc. (formerly a partner of the Bocour Artists Colour Co.) has developed a great variety of new acrylic paints and mediums, many of which permit effects impossible with oils. It looks as if, for the foreseeable future at least, the greatest abstract painters are going to be those who handle the rapidly developing acrylic medium with the greatest feeling, imagination, and freedom." "If the general movement of style is toward three dimensions, the most dramatic individual breakthroughs usually come as a new kind of drawing or figuration. And it is the kind of figuration we find again in one of the most striking talents of the new wave, Graham Peacock. An Englishman living in Edmonton, Peacock is one of the best-informed and most ambitious of the abstract painters under fifty. By ambitious here, I mean the irresistible drive to create something dramatically his own. To this end Peacock has taken Poons as his model and from Poons comes his large scale experimentalism. This has led him as it did Poons, to a new and very distinctive kind of drawing. Until now, painters have always tried to avoid cracking but Peacock works to induce and cultivate it .... The resultant "drawing" is electric, aggressive and has an intensity of detail that is altogether new to abstract painting."

"Like Poons, Peacock let his invented procedure do his drawing for him. He lets the painting paint itself and indeed Peacock is more "passive" in this respect than any of his colleagues. Also, Peacock's figuration completely escapes any sympathy with the geometric regularity of the support. In fact, it is so strong and expansive that it virtually demands a powerful external picture shape to contain it (so far Peacock has used a whole range of odd but regular external shapes: an oval, a tear drop, a triangle, a diamond). Peacock's basically all-over, continuous surface incorporates within itself the most violently expressive figure-ground oppositions. He builds up layer upon layer like Poons and Olitski but the different levels finally confront each other side by side on the picture's surface. In this way his all-overness can accommodate or call forth bright, intense and contrasted "fauve" color, something that the fusion and tonalism of Olitski and Poons have more or less excluded. Peacock can be a very bold and original colorist. Usually he is at his best when he is most intense, saturated and even acidic, when his colors seem to burn." Kenworth Moffett, Abstract Art and The Present Situation, Moffett's Artletter, Special Supplement #1 and #2, March 1986.


Graham Peacock was born in London, England, in 1945. He studied at the University of London Goldsmith's School of Art from 1962 to 1966 and did post-graduate work at the Leeds College of Art in 1966 and 1967, after which he became a lecturer at the Newport College of Art in England. In 1968, he worked in Rome, Italy, at the British School on a British Council/Italian Government Scholarship. He emigrated to Canada in 1969 and joined the Department of Art and Design at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where he is now a professor of fine art. He attended the Emma Lake Artists Workshops in 1979, 1980 and 1981, and the inaugural Triangle Workshop in New York in 1986. In September of 1987, he was invited to lead the Thupelo Project, a workshop in South Africa for black artists hosted by the Johannesburg Art Foundation. Graham Peacock exhibits his work at the Waddington Shiell Galleries in Toronto and at the Galerie Don Stewart in Montreal. He has been represented in a number of exhibitions at The Edmonton Art Gallery and in other exhibitions at many other galleries in Canada and abroad.