Visual Innovations: Graham Peacocks Legacy
Gilbert Bouchard, Work of Arts, The Faculty of Arts in Review (University of Alberta), Fall 2005
Hes already well-known for the big, brash canvases he produces, and now U of A painting professor Graham Peacock will see his equally big and explorative painting process and career deconstructed in an Art Gallery of Alberta (formerly the Edmonton Art Gallery) retrospective exhibit.
Called Graham Peacock at 60: A Retrospective 19802005, the show illustrates the major artistic innovations and procedural quantum leaps the experimentally-minded British-born and -raised Peacock has taken over the past three decades.
The gallery exhibit cheekily boasting black walls to best contrast the boldly coloured work starts with Peacocks break from the seminal abstract vocabulary used by such American painters (and personal heroes) as Kenneth Noland, Mark Rothko, and Lawrence Poons, when the painter developed a highly innovative pour process á là Jackson Pollock and Morris Louis.
The show culminates with his most recent body of work: highly lyrical and undulating island-shaped, highly collaged canvases that push the very boundary of painterly space and abstract expressionism.
Its all about the medium (acrylic paint) being the message and me trying to discover processes that help uncover, find things, in that medium that I couldnt originally visualize, says Peacock on a recent walk-through of the exhibit.
Im playing with the back and forth, push and pull of painting like when I paint in shadows rather than with working with real shadows by building reliefs.
A student of the Goldsmiths School of Art at the University of London, Peacock moved to Edmonton in 1969 to teach at the University of Alberta where he quickly rose to become a leading Western Canadian and internationally exhibited painter whos also a central member of the New New Painters, an innovative group of Canadian and American artists known for experimenting in cutting-edge abstract acrylic painting.
The defining leap Peacock took dates back to his sabbatical year in 1981 when he moved into a new studio space. During this physically and intellectually radical move, he started laying his canvas across the floor (currently he works with a special 60-foot-long custom pour frame and custom-built paint-spreading tools) and poured layer upon layer of acrylic paint, allowing the layers to shrink and separate and chaotically crack as it dried a process that can take days to even weeks.
The innovative and evocative formations and surfaces arising from the pour process become the base for the subsequent manipulations, collages and insertions (guiding) that begin when the artist hangs the dry canvas on the wall and starts a lengthy editing process which can take up to three months.
For this phase of the process, Peacock isolates a specific portion of the canvas he finds the most interesting and starts to manipulate its core images. Hell then collage bits of canvas from one section of the work to another or even collage pieces of canvas from other work as well as paint sections in or out of his vividly coloured works depending on where the piece seems to be moving.
The collage process includes everything from subtle manipulations that seem native to the initial canvas all the way to highly whimsical additions like glass beads, foam peanuts, glitter and plastic reflectors.
I started working with metallic paints back in the 70s for the same reason I started using the glitter in the 90s. I was wanting to develop ways to move beyond white paint. The way I found of doing that was to actually reflect light back, he says.
Its not only exciting to work with objects that you havent before, its also fun to break taboos and cross artistic lines by abutting pieces of high art with these lowbrow materials. Elements of kitsch like this are being used to great and lasting effect in high art nowadays.
Since 1987, Peacock has been cropping and stretching these canvases in irregular, undulating shapes that resemble small, wall-mounted islands and push the paintings to the very edge of the typically flat pure painterly plane.
Ive always been a topographical painter, an abstract landscape artist creating floating forms, he says by way of explaining the uniquely undulating canvas forms.
This process and dedication to quixotically exploring themes like topography and the natural sciences dates back to a boyhood fascination with tidal pools and a full-blown adult fascination with rheology (the study of the flow and deformation of matter, including elasticity, plasticity and viscosity) vital to his particular school of painting (the fluid school).
The process-oriented and experimental nature of the work leads to a heavily time-intensive art practice as well the creation of a body of work that is not always going to be the most market- and commercial gallery-friendly.
According to Peacock, this self-imposed artistic mandate is largely made possible by his enjoying a tenured academic position.
Ive been very fortunate to have an academic position which gives me the time and independence to pursue my creative endeavours without been compromised by having to sell work or to satisfy the taste of others. Commercial art gallery sales are aimed towards the tastes of the public and their clientele, which is often in completely different directions than artistic and academic research.
It (his career as a professional academic) has allowed me to have the time and continued support to work for long-term objectives, and if it were coupled with studio and research support it would be ideal. As it is, Ive had to make my way in the commercial world of real estate and selling art to support my research, he says. Unlike researchers in the hard sciences who have their labs funded and on campus, Peacock has had to secure off-campus studio space for his artistic research. Practical support and assistance from graduate students is also limited.
Ive been lucky with international connections and sales and exhibitions (Peacocks work has been shown in Paris, Stuttgart, Nice, Seoul, Vienna and Brussels), but for others those hurdles have been more daunting.
As for the future, Peacock an early and consistent experimenter with the acrylic medium would love to see collaboration between university scientists to help push forward the science of painting and the development of new painting media that will lead to new discoveries in painting and making art.