Q. Huh? Wow! How d'ya do that?
A. Colour and dimension.
by Lelde Muehlenbachs (1991)
For a consideration of Graham Peacock's paintings, or any work of art, it would be logical to begin at the beginning. It would be logical to unravel precedents, intentions and the technical process to fully explain the effect of the finished pictures. Although this would be the natural way to proceed, the significance of Peacock's work rests less with the artist's personal experience of aesthetic discovery than the dimensions that his work assumes once it leaves the studio. Colour and dimension are what you see at first, and what you see is what the paintings mean.
A combination of shock and seduction describes the general effect of his work. The paintings harbor an immense range of feeling, both individually and as a group. Tactile, alive, sensuous and unabashedly colourful, their surfaces range from matte to high gloss, from smooth to wrinkled. Peacock creates magical terrains containing hollows, crevasses and shiny expanses, which ask to be touched as well as contemplated. Physical variety is matched by emotional punch.
Peacock's work stands out in the western Canadian community of Edmonton, Alberta where it is made. It also addresses the history of modernist painting as well as enjoying a commonality with other contemporary North American painters willing to explore the most radical potential of acrylic paint and mediums. For the past 20 years, Edmonton has been a laboratory for modernist painting and sculpture, the reductivism of a Greenbergian formalist approach and the innovative models presented by such artists as Jules Olitski, Larry Poons and Anthony Caro. Issues that have long been abandoned by contemporary discourse have remained alive here to be either rehashed or, as in Peacock's case, built upon to define new ground. Having absorbed the primaries of modernism in the early 70's, Peacock has since left many peers in the dust.
His dimension as an artist in Edmonton has not been without controversy. At times, a consistent refusal to play it safe has been taken as an affront. Peacock takes more than the ordinary amount of risk, pushing his work forward with gazelle-like leaps, without ever second-guessing. He's after continuity without repetition and remains unsatisfied until he has surprised himself. His 1987/8 exhibition at The Edmonton Art Gallery included a range of very strong pictures that only occasionally deferred to conventional ideas of beauty and balanced composition. His current production presents an even more powerful challenge to predictable visual graciousness. For him, the plausible picture can not be predetermined, can not remind him of too much that he has seen or done before and must promise a level of staying power compatible with its initial impact. Part of Peacock's importance is the level of surprise that he continues to deliver within the parameters of a personal style.
His paintings can be described as looking and not looking like anything else we have seen before. Although the hallmark of his personal style depends on surprise, these singular visual events could only come about through a complicated technical process that has evolved slowly. The particular characteristics of the surfaces of his pictures result from years of experimenting with the way acrylic paint dries after pouring and puddling it onto canvas spread over troughs. Peacock's studio is hectic and factory-like, with several fans humming along which are used to manipulate the drying time of paint.
The resulting crazed or cracked stratified skins of paint present intricately changing surfaces that look untouched and organically driven. Individual passages allude to the natural world, both micro and macro, so that a spatial and conceptual disorientation occurs demanding that the viewer unravel it. The familiar is presented in unfamiliar terms. While the pictures are held in check by rigorous formal logic, Peacock has increasingly capitalized on their allusiveness. He seems to be backing into a new type of representation through the power of abstract metaphor, while also commenting on the link between creativity and the catalytic medium of paint.
As an artist, Peacock is unintimidated by the communicative force of colour. He relishes its obtrusiveness and insistent sensory domination. Peacock was obviously meant to live in modern times to play with high-tech fluorescent hues-any colour has a chance in his work. At mid-career, his experience with colour and how it is affected by texture has been encyclopedic and the inventory of combinations in his memory is constantly growing.
In the early eighties, the focused juxtaposing different colours that evolved through the process of crazing to achieve unique drawing. The dimensions of colour were defined by the shapes that evolved and interlocked. It soon became clear that conventional supports were inadequate and Peacock devised shaped canvases to boost pictorial colour could be expanded endlessly.
As the eighties progressed, both interior dynamics of the picture surfaces and responsive exterior contour became looser and more varied. As surface grew thicker, protruding more and more, the paintings verged in the three-dimensional. Eventually, the pictures themselves achieved a degree of objectness while maintaining a pictorial primacy.
The dimensions of the current work are determined by all the directions that have been challenged and pushed. Many different dimensions assert themselves in many directions simultaneously. Although a dimensions is specific and measurable, it can also be used intuitively.
Peacock is particularly attuned to colour's dimensionality so much so that it has become second-nature. In his work, dimension refers not just to physical facts, but to the belief that a physical dimension in art transforms into feeling. Dimension is an ubiquitous, silent partner.
Peacock had gone beyond the constraints of flatness to counter the idea that art should have an inevitable historical linearity. The formal dialogue of his pictures grows increasingly complex even when its seems that this complexity has reached saturation. The paintings avoid polarities to include ambiguities which the medium of paint encourages. They are about everything, and everything is caringly tempered.
The abstract narratives contained in his work are, therefore, numerous. Past history - his own and that of other artists-is one aspect. A cognizance of contemporary art-local as well as international-factors in. Narratives develop as he works-exchanges between parts and whole. Narratives build on narratives, memory and instant sensory apprehension intertwine, feed on each other and push along the process towards discovery and invention and more discovery. These narratives have no finality and will be interpreted over and over with each viewer, with time. Within the realm of abstraction, Peacock's work hints at post modern paradigms.
The day Peacock's paintings cease to elicit exclamatory reactions, both pro and con, we will know they have become safe, comfortable and at a dead-end. It's hard to imagine that could ever be the case.
Lelde Muehlenbachs is a graduate of Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York. She obtained her M.A. from the University of Chicago specializing in 19th and 20th Century Art History. A former curator at the Edmonton Art Gallery, she has been a freelance curator and writer since the early seventies.