Visual Innovations: Graham Peacock’s Legacy 

Gilbert Bouchard, Work of Arts, The Faculty of Arts in Review (University of Alberta), Fall 2005

He’s 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 1980–2005, 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 Peacock’s 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.

“It’s 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 couldn’t originally visualize,” says Peacock on a  recent walk-through of the exhibit.

“I’m 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 who’s 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. He’ll 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.

“It’s not only exciting to work with objects that you haven’t before,  it’s 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.

“I’ve 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.

“I’ve 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, I’ve 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.

“I’ve been lucky with international connections and sales and  exhibitions (Peacock’s 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.