Sammy Peters’ New Dialectical Paintings

One can't help but attend to the titles of Sammy Peters' new abstract expressionist paintings (all 1992-93). They are as intriguing and uncanny as the works, and a kind of hermeneutics of them. Both title and painting posit a contradiction, or at least a state of tension, and a suggested, but peculiarly postponed—infinitely delayed—resolution of it. Thus, in Being: shadow; meeting, a large rectangular shadow, virtually a door, establishes one strong plane of the picture. It is implicitly a place of meeting; inside meets outside (the door is a characteristic Derridean indecidable), and figures might meet there. Clearly, something has happened there—something emotionally very complex—and Being has been established. Out of the indeterminate gray-gold ground, a special sense of Being has emerged, with enough determinateness to be experienced as real.

Peters' paintings function on a high psycho-philosophical plane: they carry a powerful emotional charge, and emotion for him is a way of discovering and experiencing Being as such as well as one's own being in particular. They are abstract allegories of emotional conflict, articulated by an embattled painterliness, through which an anxious sense of being is expressed. Indeed, Peters has a remarkable feel for the sheer being as well as expressive potential of paint, whose fluidity creates an anxious feeling of uncertainty but which conveys a definitive sense of "thereness."

Peters' titles, then, are implicitly dialectical; they suggest that his works reconcile opposites. But in fact they are "negatively" dialectical, in that reconciliation never quite comes off: a seamless unity is not established. This indicates that irreconcilability, in expressive as well as material terms, is their basic principle. They are full of ingenious discontinuities. If the thrust of Thrust: perception; uncertain is an uncertain perception, then Peters' paintings can be said to codify, indeed, reify uncertainty. If the admission of affect creates an effect of emergence in Emergence: affect; admission, then the emergence is incomplete and precarious. If there is an impulse to reconstruction in Declare; impulse; reconstruction, there is also an unresolvable, or ambiguously resolvable, contradiction between impulse and reconstruction in the work. In fact, I will argue that this is the basic tension in all of Peters' neo-existentialist, "self"-identifying paintings. My reading of the works may not be absolutely accurate, but I think it catches their spirit. Peters' titles are in fact suggestive not descriptive, guides to their unconscious import not tautological reiterations of their content.

In one last fling of self-justification for using the title as a clue to looking, let me insist that the title is an inalienable part of the work, adumbrating it in a way that adds to as well as confirms its existing substance. Particularly in Peters' case, it is an intellectual poetry that signifies the rich emotional poetry of his paint. The title is a matrix of meaning that signifies the paint's profound meaningfulness. Thus to sever the titles from Peters' works, simplistically reducing them to a formal play of textures and colors, is to deny his painterliness—eloquent painterliness per se—any inherent power of unconscious suggestion. In general, the title is a handy, readymade frame of interpretive reference that opens the work to discourse. In fact, the titles of Peters' abstract expressionist paintings help make us conscious of what is otherwise obscure although strongly felt in them: the tension between energy that seems uncontrollable and uncontainable and structure that seems to control and contain it.

If, as Harold Rosenberg has argued, "the idea of the work as a temporary center of energy which gives rise to psychic events" (1) is singularly appropriate for an understanding of abstract expressionist painting, then Peters' abstract expressionist paintings bespeak a psychic activity that seems particularly intense and unsettling because their energy never seems centered but remains at large. But it is not spread uniformly over the surface of the painting, as in all-over or field painting, nor is it completely impulsive, as supposedly was the case in early expressionism, but precipitates into what can only be called fragments of structure. I want to suggest that these fragments, which seem to rise like the ruins of Atlantis from the fluid, often turbulent surface of Peters' canvas, dividing it into eccentric parts but also giving it a peculiar heroic if inconclusive structure, are details of an emerging containment.

What we are witnessing in a Peters' painting is a profoundly unconscious psychic activity, which cannot be so much represented as recognized through its ambiguous derivations: the conversion of beta into alpha elements, as W.R. Bion calls them. The former are "raw, concretely felt experiences which can only be dealt with by expulsion," while the latter " lend themselves to storage in memory, understanding, symbolization, and further development." (2) The important point for my argument is that the transformation of primitive beta energy, that can be managed by expulsion (which is not much management) into alpha elements that can be managed by the self and in fact form its core, is accomplished by the introjection of and "identification with a good container," that is, one "which can bear anxiety sufficiently not to eject the beta elements as an immediate discharge of discomfort." (3) I am suggesting that what we see in Peters' paintings is the conversion of the beta elements, in the form of expulsive painterliness—so-called spontaneous or impulsive or agitated gesturalism, fusing libido and aggression—into alpha elements, evident in the rudiments of structure that pervade the paintings and are simultaneous with the expulsive painterliness. What look like ruins are in fact an unprecedented construction that is still a long way from final form.

In Peters' paintings, we see abstract expressionism developing beyond the naive dialectic of expression and repression into the more sophisticated dialectic of the uncontainable and containment. This represents a deepening in the sense of psychic eventfulness. Peters' works take abstract expressionism out of the impasse represented by post-painterly abstraction, which found relief from psychic conflict in surface sensuousness (sensuous difference substituted for and simultaneously denied emotional conflict). The complex sensual energy of Peters' works represents a return to the psychic depths, indeed, and articulation of the psyche at its deepest and most intricate. They are a kind of ultimate "self" -expression.

Thus, in Pinpoint: expansion; tendency white bars, some firmly formed with neat edges, others blurry and elusive, form an eccentric, primitive, unstable construction—it literally seems like the mnemonic trace of a building, a kind of screen memory of a construction—that seems to emerge from the hypomanic flow of gestures and drips. Indeed, the bars can be regarded as a kind of amplification and crystallization of them. At the left there is a kind of brickwork, and on the lower edge its ironic schematization in a red-and-white pattern. Different levels of abstraction are implied. Everywhere structure is latent, and balanced (precariously) on a central "pedestal" of charred bricks. It is as though all the violence of the work is compressed into that black center, so that the new white structure can emerge. A similar white structure, looking like the letter in a new alphabet, strongly emerges from a turbulent black-brown field, full of what can only be described as archaic incidents of activity, as well as sophisticated curves that seem like the building blocks of a new Jerusalem. What look like relics of geometry—there is in general a strong archaeological feel to Peters' surface; much is and more seems buried in its density and depth—are in fact new inventions of potential structure.

I am suggesting that Peters is using an archaeological metaphor to show us the self as a primitive construction and containment differentiating itself out of the flux of undifferentiated, uncontained primitive feelings. The paradox of this—the paradox that Peters' paintings eloquently articulate—is that such feelings do not take on the con-figuration of the external container, but seem to generate a container out of themselves, or rather turn into one.

Black and white occur repeatedly in Peters' paintings, in various degrees of intensity, with the white usually seeming to emerge from the black. It is a demiurgic Manichean tension, with the white, which typically forms the ingredients of a relatively clear structure, representing a moment of gnostic illumination, that is, of transcendence of the primitive black energies. Quotation: naming; origins, Hidden: uneven; pattern,Inscription: travesty; allegory, andPresence: reveal; chosen are cases in point. They signal Peters' "research" into the origin of presence, which first appears as an inscription. Indeed, in a sense the white signs of structure are inscribed within the painterly surface, as though alpha symbols were inherent in the raw beta feelings.

What one sees again and again in Peters' paintings is the assertion of the latency of energy-containing symbol-structure in the manifest uncontainment of the ambivalently charged painterly energy. Being: shadow; meeting is a particularly clear example, andAbandon: submissive; other in which sign-fragments of structure are strewn at the periphery of the work, is a particularly uncanny example. Indeed, the reason meaning is in dispute and unstable in Peters' cryptic paintings—to allude to the title ofDispute: meaning; unstable—is because it is so uncanny, that is, half-conscious, half-unconscious. It first makes itself manifest through symbol, but symbol is unstable and ambiguous in Peters; works, which are only partially structured. This is why they convey a sense of being in conflict—dispute—with themselves. If Peters' titles are meditations to himself about his work process and his sense of the meaning that emerges from it, then the works themselves are meditations on the process by which symbol emerges from primitive psychic activity, but can always break down again into it.

Peters has come a long way from the days when he was making expressive structures that derived from figures, as in Tesuque Compromise, or had a heroic autonomy, as in Blue Pylon Fugue with Blue Views (both 1988). (Pylons are hallucinatory abstract figures in all but name, on the order of Don Quixote's windmills.) In positioning his structures in a space that is too fluid with raw instinct to give them footing, he has turned them into emblems of a transformative experience too primordial to be remembered. Nonetheless, it survives in feelings of symbol-recovery and self-discovery, which are the basic psychic activities of Peters' paintings.
Notes (1)Harold Rosenberg, The Anxious Object (New York: Horizon Press, 1966), p. 80. (2)Hanna Segal, Dream, Phantasy and Art (London and New York; Tavistock/Routledge, 1991), p. 51. (3)Ibid.
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Donald Kuspit is an American art critic, poet, and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of art history and philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and former professor of art history at the School of Visual Arts. Kuspit is one of America's most distinguished art critics.