Graham Peacock: Paint & Process

Russell Bingham. Update: The Edmonton Art Gallery. Fourth Issue (1987): Page 8

Graham Peacock's paintings deal essentially and dramatically with the inherent physical qualities of paint. An emphasis on materiality af?fects - in varying degrees - pretty well all of modernist style art, but what puts Peacock's art in a special category is the extent to which he lets the material assert its will. It's the scale, really, of his attack and the fullness with which he exploits "literalness" to achieve expressive ends. 

Like any art that is grandly conceived, Peacock's paintings are challenging. They can be difficult to see - the best ones often more so than the less ambitious paintings - and this has to do with their aggressiveness. With their thickly textured surfaces, his paintings are physically assertive, almost bullying. His colour can be overwhelming, too. Colour is where Peacock takes his biggest chances, and colour is where he occasionally misjudges. But adventurous colour also secures some of his most imaginative, most inspired successes. 

Relatively early on, Peacock set about exploring the possibilities of colour. In the early '70s, he made a series of works called "Striations" that dealt with colour in a pared-down, unmanipulated way. These paintings, using a created "stain" technique, involved the arrangement of contrasting hues in parallel bands aligned to the rectangular support of the canvas. They were strongly influenced by the paintings of Kenneth Noland, and, in a restrained way, they were quite affecting. More important than their success as paintings, however, was what they re?vealed about the artist's intentions. Like all of the best painters of his generation, Peacock was reaching for an abstract kind of purity, a type of painting that spoke in its own language, on its own terms. This is what had led him into Noland-style colour-field painting. 

The "Striation" pic?tures were essentially about colour, and Peacock wanted to make colour count for more by minimizing "touch." Minimizing the physical evidence of the paint application would prevent it from interfering with the visual effect of pure, nonreferential colour. The "Striation" pictures allowed Peacock to explore colour, but they didn't take into account the other, maybe more important, side to Peacock's artistic personality. They didn't let him explore his fascination - and natural facility with the physical substance of paint. To exploit this, Peacock had to make something of an about-face and assume, temporarily anyway, a more "manipulative" role in relation to the way he handled his materials. It meant laying more stress on touch than had been evident in the "Striation" pictures. 

The next decade saw Peacock submerge himself in an intensive exploration of the processes and possibilities of acrylic paint. Peacock began to experiment more broadly with his materials, and with his methods of application. This led to a number of distinct "series" of works. In one, for example, a series called "Screens," the artist used large brushes to sweep the paint across the canvas. The stiff bristles would mix the different coloured paint directly on the canvas, with the result that the colour arrangement appeared to occur as a natural and inevitable consequence of the painting process. 

Eventually, Peacock began to work on long lengths of canvas stapled to the studio floor on which he would use various tools, brushes and mops, etc. to spread water-based acrylic paint mixed with gel. (Gel is a transparent substance made of acrylic polymer used to give body to acrylic paint. Because of its transparency, it also permits various glazing effects. By working on full lengths of canvas, he could paint and then crop, in effect "find" the composition within the larger area of scraped, brushed, glazed and stroked paint. This allowed him to lay more emphasis on the painting part of the process. It allowed him to "work" the material and draw out its potential to create visual effects without by having to consciously coordinate pictorial design with application. 

By the early '80s, Peacock had begun minimizing the use of tools in the creation of his work. He started to exploit the natural puddling tendency of poured paint in order to create textural and colouristic effects as well as pictorial design. The first pictures of this type suffered from a kind of evenness of tonality and texture. They seemed to be undermined by their own literalness, to appear too heavy and inert. When he began to allow the paint to "craze," to crack and pull apart revealing underlying layers of colour, he saw a new way of animating his pictures. 

Water-based acrylic paint dries from the outside in, first forming a skin that slows down the evaporation of moisture from the paint underneath. Applying another coat of paint over the first surface will weaken the skin. This will cause it to fissure and pull apart, revealing the still wet paint underneath. Peacock took advantage of this, and by using contrasting colours in the separate layers, he emphasized and exploited the jagged fissuring as a unique kind of drawing. 

The early "crazing" pictures were characterized by a very minute kind of detailing, with the crazing creating almost a filigree effect. Because the scale of the surface incident was so minute, it became difficult to establish a strong compositional design within a conventional rectangular format. The paintings had a tendency to become too even and "allover," too patterned. Peacock began to experiment with radical shaping of the painting support. In this way, the outside shape of the picture could establish an emphatic kind of drawing that would "organize" the crazing into a more coherent, more dynamic, design. 

With these new pictures, Peacock had found a way of painting that was startlingly original, one that permitted him to exploit the physicality of paint without the element of "touch" and the conscious manipulation inherent in conventional methods of paint application. The closest antecedents could be found in the paintings of Lawrence Poons. As in the case of Poons' works, Peacock's pictures have a distinctive kind of "figuration" that is unobtainable through any other means. 

Since the first paintings of this group, Peacock has enlarged his conception by literally increasing the volume of material in his paintings. Using a kind of "trough" with raised sides allows him to pour deep pools of paint, sometimes up to eight inches deep. By incorporating pieces of canvas, dried paint, as well as various types of aggregate which will affect the drying time and crazing of the paint, he's learned how to maintain a great deal of control over the effects he can achieve. One important result is that he can adjust the scale of the fissures, allowing him to vary the nature of the "drawn" configurations, creating more emphatic drawing. 

Probably because he's found a way to make the insides of his paintings more dynamic, he's seen less need to incorporate the eccentric shaping of the supports. In a recent series of works, painted as single unified compositions rather than cropped from an expanse of painted canvas as before, he's returned to conventional rectangular supports. With these paintings, created using small, singlework troughs, Peacock let the paint "pours" sit uncropped on the lightly stained grounds. This allowed the contours of the poured shapes to function as drawn elements, much in the way that the eccentric support shape did before. They're laid out in a more conventional fashion, but this doesn't seem to affect their expressive impact. These paintings are new, and artist and viewer alike will probably need some time to sort them out, but for the most part, they still have that unmeddled with, "inevitable" appearance that imbues the best of Graham Peacock's paintings with such wonderful authority.