Interview with the Artist
by Russell Bingham
Edmonton, Canada, June, 1990
Published in the 'Colour and Dimension' Exhibition Catalog from 1992, originally printed in the '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, September 1990.
Russell Bingham is a former Associate Curator of the Edmonton Art Gallery who has written frequently on contemporary art. He is presently coordinator for the acquisition of art for Edmonton's new City Hall and a freelance writer/curator.
Russell Bingham: Some background information . . . can you say something, Graham, about what sparked your involvement with art?
Graham Peacock: I drew as a child as most people do. We lived in London and I would visit the Galleries frequently -from where I lived, I could walk to the Tate and the National Gallery. There was a program for art in high school which I took that was taught mostly by graduates from London Art Schools. Later, I was encouraged by my high school to apply to an Art School, and in 1962, I went to University of London, Goldsmith's College of Art on a scholarship for four years.
RB: What came after that?
GP: I went to graduate school at Leeds College of Art in Yorkshire for a year. The program at Goldsmiths College was not based solely around the figure, but on the Bauhaus. I was taught by William Tucker, Basil Beatie, Bert Irwin and Andrew Forge, among others. Tucker is a sculptor who was also teaching at St. Martin's at the same time as Anthony Caro. Irwin and Beatie are painters, and Forge, who is a critic, was head of painting at Goldsmith's. I worked in both painting and sculpture, and after graduate school I taught at Newport College of Art for a year prior to taking leave to study in Rome on an Italian government scholarship.
RB: What kind of painting and sculpture were you doing -figurative or abstract?
GP: I did a lot of figurative work, painting, sculpture, drawing, observational studies in high school and the first and second years of Art College before being influenced by European Structuralism, what became minimalism in North America. I was studying with Kenneth Martin who had a very mathematical approach to sculpture, and Bill Tucker whose teachings were similar to some of the things that Caro was doing, although Tucker was much more intellectual in his approach. I started to work with colour and 3dimensional form in the simple Bauhausian way of putting elements together. When I first saw Caro's work "Early One Morning" at the Tate back in the late sixties, it seemed to make total sense to me. It suggested a way in which one would express oneself freely, purposefully, with things counterbalanced rather than ordered by mathematical structure-which I'd never found satisfying. I found myself rebelling against some of my early teachings.
RB: This mathematical ordering, distillation and balancing that you were rebelling against . . . was this a particularly English idea?
GP: More of a European idea, actually . . . it had to do with a confusion between methodical, functional ordering and the kind of free aesthetic organization that art has when it just looks right.
RB: Were people looking to North America when you were a student?
GP: Some were. At the end of my studies at Goldsmith's Caro, Scott, Annesley, Bonus, and Tucker were being shown in New York, and there was some reciprocal interest in American art. At Waddington and Kasmin Galleries in London I'd seen some "Unfurled" paintings of Morris Louis and some of the late "Slab" paintings of Rothko, and they moved me more than any of the contemporary English or European painting that I'd seen. This was one of the turning points in my life as an artist, and why I'd thought of coming to North America. I saw that England was entrenched in tradition and extremely restricted in its acceptance of the modern. I was 23 and saw no future in trying to paint in England.
RB: Is that when you came to Edmonton?
GP: Yes. I came to Edmonton in 1969. In Rome I made up my mind that I needed to get to North America to see the art, and then I was offered a position at the University of Alberta, Canada. I liked it immensely and travelled extensively through North America seeing collections.
RB: What was the climate like for making art when you arrived here in Edmonton?
GP: It was well-connected with the main world influences. There were people who were influenced by a lot of European traditions, and there was an extremely strong heritage of landscape painting. Contemporary art was more influenced by 1940s post-war European art. Most people were aware of modernism, but few were trying it. Edmonton was just beginning to become of age in terms of contemporary art. The Edmonton Art Gallery hired Terry Fenton as director in 1971, and he and Karen Wilkin, the Gallery's head curator, were very interested in contemporary art. With the cooperation of people like David Mirvish and Andre Emmerich, who made extended loans of art to the Gallery, it was possible in Edmonton to see contemporary art by some of the world's best artists. I'd also landed in a place where there was a number of painters - Phil Darrah, Ann Clarke, Harold Feist, Bruce O'Neil, Hank Bres, Doug Haynes, Violet Owen, among others - who were trying to make serious contemporary work, and there was a public gallery that saw that it had a job to do in showing some of the best art in the world . . . I saw this as a phenomenal piece of luck.
RB: 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?
GP: In 1970, I became familiar with the work of Kenneth Noland and I remember reading an interview in which he talked about how he approached painting. It had to do with a very intuitive way of working with balanced proportions of colour and it seemed far less complex than the grid sort of formats that I was working with. Inspired by this, I made the series of paintings called "Striations." I have always had a very strong desire to be very free and open with paint in an expressionistic way, and yet I have a strong love of colour which by its very nature needs to be spread out. Side-by-siding colour produces a certain structural need in the painting, a "figure-ground"-ing which - although it advanced my colour - tended to limit my drawing. As I moved through this series, I began to relax the scheme of the bands and start to draw more with the colour. But I found, though, that I could not maintain the clarity of colour and at the same time keep the looseness of the drawing. 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.
RB: 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 very unconventional ways of applying paint and moving it around. Before this, my impression is that you painted in a more or less conventional way in the manner in which you put the paint down, but around this time you started discovering new tools and new methods that would bring out aspects of the paint material. Is this right?
GP: Yes. I had already been going through something like what the early Modernists went through in the '30s trying to find a way to do things differently. I'd jumped from European structuralism to Noland and back to an early abstract expressionist approach, and by the time of the Steiner workshop, I'd let go of the banding and 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 started 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 seventies, 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 I'm 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 paintings and I make very bold ones, but I still have to keep a separation or a definition in the colour in order that the drawing doesn't lose its clarity.
"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"
RB: In the earliest paintings of this series, the crazing was very fine and spidery. The pictures were basically rectangular in shape, too, weren't they?
GP: Yes, but they didn't end up as rectangles. They looked better when they were shifted to the diagonal axis so they appeared as diamonds, usually with one side cropped in. These were the early paintings that are called "Polo:" They are brilliant ultramarine blue on white, sometimes with a glazed layer of a blue underneath the white. I was layering the colour and they seemed then to be very raw and very electric in their character because of this sort of aggressive drawing . . . I found that it was one of the first things I'd done that I didn't know what to make of.
RB: It didn't look like anyone else's ...
GP: It didn't look like anyone else's stuff, so what could I do with it? The first problem was how to get some control over the scale of the crazing, so what I had to do was deal with the formulation of the paint and make something out of it that I could work with. I was making the paintings essentially using a trough, and I would use collage, very thin slabs of dried paint or canvas stuck on to compose some kind of pictorial structure. I'd then pour layers of paint over top. I haven't really changed my process since '82, although the paintings have evolved. I've worked through all kinds of palettes and glazes and opaque colour, and I'm still working with surface build-up, moving towards greater relief and colour. And I've gone from strictly geometric to include a mare random, organic cropping.
RB: With those first "crazed" pictures, you were working with long lengths of canvas - is this correct? and cropping individual paintings out of these long expanses of painted surface.
GP: Yes. I would have, say, 30 feet of canvas . . . I'd been doing that on and off since the '70s - working on long lengths and letting the final composing come later. After the Steiner Workshop in '73 I was introduced to Larry Poons and Jules Olitski, so I got to know how they worked. I made subsequent visits and felt that Larry's method of painting offered an intuitive freedom that I needed for my own work. When I started with the "crazing" in `82 I was still working on lengths, but it would be like a big "striation" painting. I might move along the length from orange through yellow, through green to blue. And so I'd think about it like colour mixture on a palette with stacked bands shifted in layers one over the other. This gave me the option of moving along later and deciding what colour composition I wanted, what shape. Irregular, geometrically-shaped compositions-sometimes curved, strong angles, whatever-to make the shape work with what was painted. Then I started using retaining walls set up under the canvas to make individual troughs which allowed me to manipulate the outside shape of individual pictures. I returned for a while to a rectangular, more traditional format, where the internal shape floated and became more regular.
RB: These are the pictures that have a border of thin paint with the thicker stuff clustered in the centre.
GP: Yes. It may be that several series of works will come out of the same process. As soon as I get good at one way of working and work long enough at it, I usually feel a need to reorder things to challenge myself further. I hadn't painted a rectangle for a long time and it became a challenge to try to do that.
RB: In a sense, the paintings from that period - the ones with the little bit of breathing space around the central cluster of paint - tended to be more pictorial in a conventional way. It has something to do with the border giving the pictures a more frontal effect. After that, you began to crop more into the paint, deleting those thinly painted areas and making the shapes more eccentric - and in fact doing away with the frame. These paintings have become much more object-like, less pictorial. They stamp out, I guess, as pictorial compositions when they are placed on the wall because the contours are so emphatic, but still, they're not pictorial in the conventional way. What do you think about these ones? Do you see them as paintings or objects.
GP: Certainly the paintings that float like shapes within a rectangle are more conventionally formatted. They lead, however, to the less conventional paintings in that I took that shape out of the rectangular format and expressed it by itself. I find that both are plausible solutions. Now I'm working with surfaces . . . I'm actually folding the canvas in and out, as well. If I paint a canvas and let's say a colour isn't as strong in an area as I would like it, one way of giving it a little more presence is to bring the surface up by physically bowing the surface. So recently I've been playing around with the pictorial structure using physical thicknesses. I try to avoid them becoming relief-like objects. Even though they are very physical and the shapes are very strong, when they are related to a wall they still work primarily on a pictorial structure of colour and drawing. Their physicality is more a reinforcement of those two things than it is a leading characteristic. The shaping lets me take away what I don't need. I may have a colour area that isn't alive and can be taken away or moved over, or moved in or out physically. Traditionally, one would paint in and strengthen that colour, and I may do that, too. I'm taking cropping to an extreme, perhaps, but I feel my shapes 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 lead by the work. I try to fathom what its strengths are. In the end I have to follow my own instincts with the work. "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 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."
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"? What's the difference between your colour and Matisse's colour. Or Noland's colour? (top)
GP: I don't recall using the term "modern colour" as a specific expression, but I would think that by the very nature of modernism, it would mean trying to extend colour, a progressive use of colour - trying to bring anew, something fresh to colour. Certainly Matisse's colour was very modern for his time. Noland's colour was very modern, especially in the'60s when he made tremendous inroads with colour. Louis . . . everyone who's a great artist has a particular colour sense and it isn't an order of colour that everyone follows. It's their ability to express themselves and convey feelings, emotions, and to communicate through the vitality of colour in their own way. What I may have meant about "modern" colour is that I attempt to express myself in a new way through colour . . . 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 artmaking 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 the paint piles up and 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? (top)
RB: It's evident haw 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. The way I manipulate the material is new and I think that from Pollock on, through Frankenthaler, Louis and Poons comes this freedom of letting the paint do part of the drawing, letting the form come out of the act of painting . . . I'm trying to extend that.
RB: I want to ask you what effect you feel living in Edmonton has had on 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: I think that in the '70s we were all seeking to work more abstractly and make work that was as good as the best work that we were beginning to see. It was an exciting time, an extremely challenging time. By the '80s, there were lots of younger serious painters and a strong leaning here towards close-value contrasted colour. I have been stimulated by Edmonton painting and I think that it's at a very high level. 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 that 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: How do you see these two aspects of contemporary painting: high key, high contrast versus the close-valued type of colour. Do you see one replacing the other in the mainstream of abstract painting?
GP: I see it like a Manet-Monet-Matisse progression. We come from the high contrast, extreme drama of the 19th Century with Manet to the introduction of very subtle and polychromatic colour with Monet. Then Matisse brings us back to a bold structure, only with full hue. Historically, development is often seen to occur in counterpoint to what existed - the Delacroix/David, classical/ romantic, back and forth. It's a part of human nature that we go on through change.
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 socalled "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? "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:" (top)
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 everyday, 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: What role do you think theory plays in the making of art? Can you evaluate what you are doing from a theoretical point of view and from this draw any useful insights or devise any useful strategies? Where does intuition fit into this?
GP: Well I think it depends on what stage you're at. Theory can offer insight and can be very useful in painting the way, in the same way that informed criticism can. Theory can be liberating in a philosophical, aesthetic sense if it frees you from worry and if it gives you a framework within which you can apply what you know instinctively. If you've learned your skills and you have some imagination, you can explore. Judgement, time, discipline, comparison of your art with other art these things will hopefully guide you. Certainly I don't think there is a theory that one has to follow. Half of the task is developing your own way, which - in theory is finding a theory for yourself through intuition. You continue to hone that. So it's a life's work.
RB: So progress in art happens on an individual level. You don't subscribe to the position that there's a need to renovate modern painting by doing this or that?
GP; No, I don't think there's a cause to be fought other than to fight for quality. Perhaps if there's a prevailing opinion that good sculpture or good painting is this way, or that . . . the only cause is not to feel bound to join forces with some sort of doctrine if there appears to be one. It may be that, with regard to the artists that I'm showing with, there is a common sense of physicality in paint surface and some commonality in colour, but I don't look at their work and see it as a solution or a cause that I follow. It is sufficient that their work inspires me.
RB: How do you know when you are on the right track with your painting? Do you rely on other people's opinions?
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. That's usually a pretty firm indication as to whether I am on the right track. The work has usually told me at some point what to do. Time is the biggest teller of all. Ken Moffett, who I met in 1980, has been extremely helpful. He was the first to recognize and get excited about my work at a time when I was quite doubtful about what I was doing. His criticism of my work and his overview of painting today have been a major source of encouragement to me. Wendy, my wife - I find her take on my work is usually right on track with what has been seen as being the best of what I've done in the past. I've learned a tremendous amount from Clement Greenberg. He has always been a very insightful, provocative mentor who I've enjoyed knowing since 1973. I am grateful for what I learned from my experiences with Michael Steiner and Larry Poons . . . I'm very fortunate to have had a chance to see the art, and have the time, the money and the support of the University of Alberta to make my own work. The Edmonton Art Gallery, Terry Fenton, Karen Wilkin and yourself - the shows that you've done over the years, have been an invaluable resource. I don't think that you can make art in a vacuum. There's so much great art to be seen . . . It never ends.