Acrylic Controversy

Russell Bingham. "The New New Paintings of Graham Peacock".
Artfocus. Spring (1993): page 9

An Interview by Russell Bingham 

Russell Bingham: Thinking back to the early '70s and remembering the work you were showing then - the "striation" pictures, I think you called them - it occurs to me that what you are doing now is more free-form, less schematic. It's also more involved with the physical material of the paint and the way that paint is handled. If you compare the work from these two periods, it's almost as if they are suggesting two different sensibilities altogether. How did you get from one to the other? What prompted the change from this very austere and almost intellectual way of making a picture to the very intuitive process which characterizes your work now? 

Graham Peacock: I was casting around, trying a lot of things, and in 1973 the Edmonton Art Gallery invited Michael Steiner to lead a workshop, which I attended and found very encouraging. 

R.B: It seems that the most distinctive change that occurred around the time of the Steiner workshop was that you became very involved with handling the material, and with applying paint and moving it around. Around this time you started discovering new tools and new methods that would bring out aspects of the paint material. Is this right? 

G.P: Around the time of the workshop I was beginning to cross colours any which way. I was looking for a new way to draw. I had been very moved by the work of Poons, Pollock and Olitski, and I wanted to organize the colour but let the drawing stay loose. But the colour would always become muted by mixing. One of the most fundamental changes occurred in 1981 when I stared to pour paint in big puddles on "screen" fields of thinly broomed paint. I got this fissuring - "crazing" - occurring in the centre of the deep poured area. Noticing this sort of separation in the layers of paint as they dried, made me think about putting down the colours one on top of the other instead of laying them out side by side. So really in a way I was approaching painting like I did in the early 70's, but now I was stacking the paint layers, and as the drying paint skinned and separated, I was able to bring one colour through the other. This allowed me the freedom with paint and range of colour I wanted. That was in 1982, and fm still basically using this method. It's very direct, very fast, although the paintings dry and develop over a long period of time - two to four weeks before I can start cropping. And, because the drawing occurs in the separations of the paint, in order to define it I have to "step" the colour somewhat. I make very subtle paint Stages of pouring and surfaces work with the overall pictorial structure. 

RB: In a way, you're editing or cutting out the parts that are inert or don't seem essential to the painting - basically a kind of reductive process. Can you add on? 

GP: Yes. I can cut a piece of canvas off, move it around, add a piece on... As my paintings become more physical, they have a lot of tolerance to that kind of assemblage. Any additions are possible if they stay in character, within my way of working the "crazing" - and don't introduce another major form of drawing. I use collage purely for punctuation or for colouristic charge where and when it's needed. The shaping brings out the best in what I've painted. The major thrust is the actual composition of the colour and drawing in the painting at the time of pouring the paint. The rest is seeing what conclusion it can come to. I'm led by the work. I try to fathom what its strengths are. In the end I have to follow my own instincts with the work.

RB: I recall that in something you'd written or said, you used the term "modern colour". I don't know if you remember this ... but what do you mean by "modern colour"? 

GP: What I may have meant about "modern" colour is that I attempt to express myself in a new way through it. When I go skiing and see all these neon colours on the hillside, I find them exciting - all these expanses of white and these bursts of luminous colours. These colours are now available to us and they are part of our time in the way that Prussian blue was part of Leonardo Da Vinci's. It makes for a wondrous gain for painting. A limited palette may be just as useful. It depends upon the individual, and that individual's art. For me, what gets me started with a painting is to be inspired by colour. 

RB: There was a time when tools were really important in your art making process and the types of tools you used lent a certain character to your pictures. Now your paintings seem much more hands-off. They almost have the appearance of having created themselves. I'm talking about the way that the figuration occurs as a result of the "crazing", for example, and how the shape seems to have been generated almost randomly by the way paint piles up, creates its own contour. How far can you go in that direction? Can something that has the appearance of being totally self generated be seen as a work of art without this somehow affecting it's expression? 

GP: The self-generation is - I feel an asset, not a limitation to the expression in my work. Are you asking if I have control in the way that I paint? 

RB: It's evident how much control you have, but you seem to take a lot of pains to conceal the manipulation, the evidence of the artist's hand. 

GP: I manipulate the paint a great deal, but, true ... I've taken the evidence of my hand out. It's no different than with Jackson Pollock flicking paint and producing the strands, or Monet discovering this brush that he could dab with and use to draw the colour together with the successive dabs. It's finding a way of drawing, it's a technique. You see the evidence of the brush and you associate it with painting. If everyone were pouring paint, then you'd associate that activity with painting. I found that by drawing with tools and working the paint in various ways, a lot of what I produced was familiar to me in terms of other people's art and it was - curiously enough - after spending years and years of getting good at drawing in a more traditional way that I ended up working with something where, directly, you don't see my hand indirectly, I'm manipulating not only the paint structure but moving the skins of paint around physically with my hands or using gravity to make things flow or blocking an area so that the paint flows away from it or to it. I'm still the orchestrator of the end product. The random things that occur are exciting. I never know exactly what I'm going to get out of the way I work and I don't want to because I'm stimulated by some degree of unexpected occurrence, ....letting the form come out of the act of painting... 

RB: I want to ask you what effect you feel living in Edmonton has had of your art. Do you see any kind of kinship between yourself and the other painters here in the city or do you feel your ties are stronger to artists elsewhere? 

GP: There's a true painting sensibility that exists in Edmonton, and I am very fortunate to have worked and emerged within this. Since 1984, I have been more stimulated, however, by some of the artists with whom I'm showing in this exhibition and by some other artists work in and around the New York region. In their work, there's a sense of pushing drawing and colour further. I find it more innovative. It challenges my eye to absorb new ways of seeing things that's very exciting for me. Like the colour in Jerry Webster's work which is full spectrum - to me it's like the stimulation I got when I first saw Matisse. 

RB: In my experiences with your paintings, I've often noticed something of a "new wave" sensibility, for want of a better term. Perhaps it has to do with these strident neon colours that you were talking about and the way that you often seem to be deliberately making your paintings appear unappealingly physical. In this respect, I see a kind of similarity between what you are doing and what is happening in a lot of the bad art, the so called "avant-garde" art we see in the art magazines. Is there any connection, or is it coincidence? Is there some sort of modern sensibility that wants to push, wants to turn its nose up at refined taste.? 

GP: Bad art is superficial artistically. The refined taste of good art is an asset but it's also a danger if one settles for conventions. If I seem to push my art to a point at which it might have a lack of appeal for you, or appear to reject good taste, it is in order to get to "fresh turf", without a preconception of good taste. Taste changes as we change over time, and by experience... I'm more used to my art than most people because I do it every day, so I have to trust my own sense of what is possible and that which I find to be good. The things that often stand out, that continue to have personality, are things that are odd and difficult to begin with. I'm sort of probing at that with my drawing, colour and surface. I'm curious to find anything that I haven't seen before to see if it has any value for me. I may be making a lot of work that in the end may seem trivial and close to bad art, or hopefully it may be some of the best of my time. I can't worry about that. I just do my best to know my work. 

RB: How do you know when you are on the right track with your painting? 

GP: I constantly evaluate my work. If I work in a direction long enough, the stimulus either comes from the work or it seems to die .... The work has usually told me at some point what to do. Time is the biggest teller of all .... 


1) This article is abridged from New New Painting, a catalogue published in conjunction with a three-man exhibition, John Gittins, Graham Peacock, Bruce Piermarini, at the Atwood Gallery, Worcester, Massachusetts.

2) New Acrylic Painters were first shown at the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale by Kennworth Moffett, followed by Vero Beach Centre for the Arts.

3) A national touring exhibition of Graham Peacock's work is being organized for 1994/95 by the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

Russell Bingham is a former Associate Curator of the Edmonton Art Gallery who has written frequently on contemporary art.