Art Review: Graham Peacock

Bill Kort. Artfocus. April 14 - May 3, 2001

Graham Peacock was born and educated in England. He studied art at the University of London, did graduate work at the University of Leeds, and spent a year studying in Rome.

Peacock felt the best paintings were being made in North America and wanted to move there. In 1969 he was offered a teaching position at the University of Alberta, which he gladly accepted.

Peacock was not satisfied with his paintings of the sixties and seventies so in the early 80’s he began experimenting with pouring paint, which led in 1982 to a personal style that he continues to develop.

Peacock’s method of making a picture can be divided, theoretically, into distinct stages: first, pouring paint onto the canvas, then hanging the canvas for shaping, then adding foam to the back of the canvas to build relief areas. Finally, foam and other materials are added to the surface itself: painted canvas, reflective surfaces like mirrors, glass beads and forms created on a non-adhesive surface that are removed when dry and glued to the canvas.

Peacock, like all artists, has built his style by looking to the past. A direct influence on his turning to pouring paint heavily laden with gel was Larry Poons. However, Poons tacks his canvas to the wall, throws the paint onto the canvas, then allows gravity to work its magic; Peacock works on a horizontal surface, realising a much different result. A general influence on his style is Jackson Pollock. Like him, he pours paint onto the canvas, but rather than drawing in the manner of Pollock, he floods the canvas surface like Helen Frankenthaler. Like Morris Louis, he works on a stretcher; but rather than leaning the stretcher against the wall, Peacock lays it horizontally.

Peacock’s work is easy to look at but difficult to appreciate. The dilemma in large measure is a misapprehension concerning his approach to picture making, his methodology, and the apparent wilfully arbitrary results. Misapprehension here is simply misunderstanding. Nevertheless, if it were true that Peacock did nothing more then throw paint onto a surface and call the resulting conglomeration a work of art we would not on those grounds alone be justified in disqualifying the results as art. No method or approach or material can be ruled out of order a priori; in art all that counts is results, and results are judged in experience only.

Peacock’s pictures can in fact be looked at and appreciated in much the same fashion as pictures of the past. This is not to say that there is nothing new here; Peacock’s work is original.

Truly original art confronts the norms and conventions of the past; consequently, it carries more of that past within itself than the superficially original. The superficially original seeks newness for its own sake, while the truly original goes beyond mere surface effects to realise something that lies deeper, metaphorically, beneath the surface, and what lies there is what really counts in art, aesthetic quality.

Aesthetics has been marginalised in contemporary art by the forces of conservatives, which if not redressed will ultimately destroy art. Art absent of aesthetic quality is a contradiction in terms. It is comparable to the rejection of truth in science, or the good in ethics. It is only in the aesthetic mode that true originality can be recognised. For all the physical differences in the work of Giotto, Titian, Poussin, Manet, Miro and Pollock, we sense a relationship, and that relationship is an aesthetic relationship. If we could not compare Pollock and Titian aesthetically we might well assume they were involved in entirely different activities or from different planets. Aesthetic quality is what is distinct to artistic perception. In discarding the aesthetic we are left to judge a work of art as just another object, to judge it for its decorative or functional properties, its usefulness.

Seeing for the purpose of making art is not much different than seeing for the purpose of appreciating art. Our ability to see aesthetic value is central to both activities. The artist and viewer alike learn to perceive the aesthetic historically, in art of the past. The artist must realise that learning in making the new, the viewer in appreciate the new.

To understand the present, the new, we must look to the past. Peacock’s work is new; hence, we look to the past for direction. We seek convergence with that past and then attempt to establish a logical, or at least a meaningful direction of development. (Limited space necessitates that the focus be on the recent past only.

What strikes one initially in Peacock’s pictures is colour, but it is drawing that is central to the success of the pictures. His approach to drawing is comparable to that of Kenneth Noland, particularly Noland’s pictures of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Noland would stain a large piece of canvas then place a couple of stripes along the top and bottom of the stained area or criss-cross the stripes to form a grid. The stripes signal the presence of the artist and also organise what would otherwise appear as an impersonal and arbitrary surface. The stripes are the only drawing present, and although these drawn lines enter the process late, it is they that make it possible to read the field of colour pictorially. Peacock’s eccentric shaping likewise signals the presence of the artist and organises the ostensibly impersonal and arbitrary swatch of paint-flooded canvas. The eccentric shaping, although done with a cutting instrument, is drawing. Like Noland’s drawn stripes, Peacock’s eccentrically drawn edge telegraphs intention and sets the conditions of pictorial experience. The difference between Noland and Peacock is in how we read their pictures. Noland’s pictures read in pictorial space. He creates the illusion of space, albeit, a shallow visual space. Peacock’s pictures read across the surface, as narratives; space in Peacock’s pictures is real, built in relief

The shaped canvas, which saw a revival in the early sixties amongst abstract painters, had by the end of the decade, if not sooner, lost credibility. Both Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland used shaped canvases in the sixties. Stella’s influence was the more dramatic. Stella’s shaped canvases were composed of stripes mimicking the framing edge; his work spawned the term, literalism. Out of Stella came the Minimalists – particularly Donald Judd and Carl Andre (also Language Art, notably, Joseph Kosuth). The conclusions drawn by Judd from Stella’s work led him out of painting into sculpture; more accurately, to making what he called specific objects; objects that were non-rational and non-illusionistic; objects that were unconditionally literal. Judd’s reading of Stella turned a necessary condition of painting into a liability, and since then the shaped canvas has been unavailable to abstract painting – abstract painting relies on the tension between its nature as an object and its essential characteristic, illusion. Peacock’s approach to picture making may make shape once again tenable for abstraction. His success here may have to do with the relation he establishes between shape and surface. Initially, we note the eccentric shape, but in time this eccentricity becomes a norm and we are drawn to the complex painted surface. He lessens the tension on the shape by tapering the stretcher slightly towards the wall so there is barely any edge, which also acts to heightening tension across what is now a convex surface. Interestingly, Peacock does not avoid Judd’s conclusions, as many abstract painters have, but turns Judd inside out and returns us to complexity with a vengeance.

Peacock’s approach to picture making gives colour extraordinary freedom. In most paintings colour defines form, whereas in Peacock’s work colours merge and mingle in such a manner that the forms are atomised, dissolved or rendered indistinct. Colours poke through and penetrate one another to create a surface that seems entirely natural, like natural formations of rock or soil. By organically shaping the edge he turns the surface into a skin, a covering, and as with any organic object we accept the colour incidences along its surface, even if disjunctive, as integral. This is not to suggest that Peacock does not have to concern himself with colour relations; he does in fact step or tone colour. We are talking of relative not absolute freedom here.

There are a dozen paintings in the exhibition. All are more or less successful. Big Black, 62 1/2” x 148”, the largest picture, is also the most satisfying, perhaps because in this large format we see the full potential of Peacock’s style.

Oriental Slice, 46 3/4” x 25“ is both a conservative picture and an exceptionally good picture; essentially, a figure-ground composition. Onto a silvery white vertically elongated organic oval is placed, near the centre, an organic black oval area containing a smallish pink blob. The picture is curved slightly along its left edge and straightened along the right edge. The interior black area is built into relief and shaped in reverse to the exterior shape - curved on the right side, straightened on the left side. Along the top is a narrow three-inch bronze-umber band.

Peacock employs a wide range of colours but ordinarily limits the range in individual pictures. Big Black, as an example, is primarily black, white, blue and red. Periodically, he utilises a riot of colours in a single picture to great advantage: examples would be Good Day, Sun Chaser and Dreams Away.