Uniqueness in the art of the 20th Century is often confused with quality. To make its mark in the upper circles, an artist's work must not only be good, it must be different. Sometimes, if it's different enough, even the "good" can be dispensed with. There's no use quarreling with this syndrome; it is the inevitable result of the high value we place on individuality. The question is: how do we define uniqueness?
The truly unique has nothing to do with an artist's choice of medium, technique or subject matter. That is, it is not necessarily attained by cleverly hitting upon an unoccupied niche in the art world. It can come from an artist working within an outmoded tradition, as in the case of Melville, Mahler or Eakins, as well as from such ground-breakers as Joyce, Schoenberg and Picasso. One feels that the works of these writers, composers and painters would have been just as great regardless of the idiom in which they were done. This is what I suspect about Sammy Peters, whose works will be on display at
Little Rock's Heights Gallery
through August 9.
Peters works in the modernist tradition of abstract expressionism, the style which brought American art to world prominence in the 1940s and 1950s and which has been all but smothered under the avalanche of "isms" since the Sixties. Like Adolph Gottlieb and Robert Motherwell before him, he works with a limited number of geometric forms. These have evolved out of his earlier figurative work just as Willem de Kooning's and Jackson Pollock's did from theirs. Despite these parallels, words like "derivative" or "outmoded" are not likely to occur to the viewer of a Peters painting. All such considerations are swept aside by the vitality and drama of these works.
Every abstractionist has to deal with the problem of how to or whether to make the world of his or her art as interesting as the real world. Peters' strategy is to start with a few rudimentary shapes and colors, set up a dynamic, unstable relationship between them, and let them interact. His paintings seem to have evolved as the universe itself has, beginning with a few elemental forces in opposition, expanding, proliferating and exploding.
What might be called the "environments" in which these dramas play themselves out are made up of rectangular color fields, sometimes flat and featureless, as in White Roofs, sometimes churning like a drop of pond water or the surface of the sun, as in Vague Miasma.
Often the most prominent of the dramatis personae is the right triangle, or wedge. Its base is characteristically unstable, so that it tends to eject its contents like a volcano or a wound. A double curve, resembling mountains or breasts, is frequently found near the top of a painting. In the middle region of nearly every work is a kind of horizontal barrier of short vertical strokes, which resemble coyote fences the artist said he saw in New Mexico. Equally omnipresent is a group of small bean-shaped forms resembling footprints or microbes. Sometimes, as in Richly Blatant, these have become trapped in loops of juicy white paint like invading germs attacked by leukocytes.
Near the end of 1985, a mutation of the wedge, an isosceles triangle, began appearing in Peters' work. In Merger and Acquisition, it recalls a rooftop; in Necessary Circumstance, the female pubis; and in Richly Blatant, it tries to imitate the indigenous right triangles by taking on their red coloring and volatile disposition.
Peters works mainly in oil and oil pastel on canvas or paper, usually on a large scale. There is always interplay between the dry marks and fluid strokes. The artist describes his work as "messy," and so it is, with drips, splatters and troweled textures so entangled that sometimes the painting looks out of control. This is, of course, deliberate. It is not the artist who has lost control, but the world he is depicting. It is a world in a continuous flux of upheaval and collapse, growth and decay. In Jaded Merger, the wedge seems to have just been reborn out of the gloom in a gush of fire or blood, whereas in Subsequent Metaphor, its ejected contents have cooled and petrified.
Such works are not so much finished as simply stopped, as action is stopped by a camera. A painting is a static thing that can, at best, show only a record of movement, like a seismograph, not movement itself. It is the painter's task, as it is the photographer's, to stop the action at precisely the right moment. The mood, and character of a Peters work depends on this decision.
No matter what their mood, all these paintings give the impression of having been caught in the act. And it's not just paint that has been caught. In spite of their sometimes imposing physical presence, they are nevertheless pictures- images of something beyond themselves. They are fundamentally metaphors of the human condition. Geometry may be their language, but it is a passionate geometry.
Anton Bruckner has been accused of writing the same symphony nine times, and Sammy Peters has said the same thing about himself- that he paints the same painting over and over again. Although that criticism of Bruckner is exaggerated, it may have more validity in his case than in Peters'. You certainly don't get a feeling of repetition in a roomful of Peters' paintings. Each work demands to be experienced on its own terms. True, the "characters" keep coming back in different guises, contexts and degrees of prominence, like those in Faulkner's novels or in Donald Roller Wilson's paintings, but this only stimulates our interest in them. If there is any weakness in this approach it is only that one Peters painting by itself is perhaps less interesting than it would be in the company of some of its ancestors and descendants.
Except for a recent self-portrait, the last figurative work Peters did was in 1983. In those earlier canvases, one can find the beginning of the footprint, microbes, the proto-wedge and other embryonic forms of his present pantheon. Why were these works unsatisfying to him? I think his shift in direction might be comparable to that of a scientist who is compelled to turn from observed effects to root causes. His figures are as "messy," animated and volatile as his abstract forms, but they are the visible result of the animating forces, not the forces themselves. It is as if in his present work he is trying to penetrate the very origins of form and color, and to do this it became necessary to create the world anew. This is the necessity out of which the uniqueness of Sammy Peters' work emerges.
Painter, sculptor, art writer