Sammy Peters: Pluripotential Painting

In his essay about the paintings Sammy Peters showed at the Arkansas Art Center, Donald Kuspit identified that recently minted body of work as "dialectical"—in fact, " 'negatively' dialectical, in that reconciliation never comes off: a seamless unity is not established." Kuspit celebrates Peters' "ingenious discontinuities," the myriad ruptures and slippages in meaning that occur between the paintings and their elaborate, evocative titles—and that occur among the various qualities of the paintings themselves. Since then, Peters has maintained these ruptures and slippages, calibrating them as carefully as ever between image and title—and, if anything, amplifying and building on the discontinuities apparent in the paintings themselves.

The back and forth between qualities in Peters' painting, especially now, is constant, rollicking, and delicious. Texture, color, image, scale, gesture, space and meaning all maintain a dynamic, even argumentative relationship with one another, and, as ever, conclude their argument not so much by reaching accord as by agreeing to (continue to) disagree. This does not mean that the paintings are disagreeable. On the contrary, in their very disputatiousness they are on several levels fascinating and gratifying displays of virtuosity. The ongoing dissonance among factors, after all, is itself coherent, as piquant and necessary as the "wrong notes" in, say, music by Stravinsky, Ives, or Miles Davis. In a larger context, the contestation among elements typical of a Peters painting more than ever provides the same kind of thrill as that afforded by a well-played ball game. But in this context it's not the struggle between two opposed forces that excites us (unless you happen to be rooting for "push-pull" or "narrative" or some other painterly particular), it's how the game is played. The ballet and balance of the sport, the grace of the goal and of the blocked kick, of the line drive and of the double play, find a not-so-distant echo in the continual give and take between factors in Peters' paintings. All these factors are of equal importance in the basic context of painterly praxis—line is no more suppressible than color, which is no less significant than composition, which is just as important as imagery—and Peters takes great care not to privilege further any one than any other.

It may seem as if Peters is stressing the facture of his paintings over all other elements. Surface incident and the sensation of paint and painterliness do appear to be of paramount importance to him. But it doesn't take much consideration of his work to realize that (to put it as a kind of tongue-twister) such facture is in fact not one of the basic factors. In Peters' case facture is an end result, a cumulative condition, the sum total of all the other elements after they have (as Charles Ives put it with regard to his colorfully discordant String Quartet #2) "argued, made up, and gone home." (Home in Peters' case is the canvas or panel where all the arguing has taken place, so it's been a domestic dispute from the outset.) The facture is the playing of the game; it is the embodiment, not just the result, of the players'—i.e., Peters'—virtuosity.

The pleasure provided the viewer by the facture, by its conditional but emphatic sensuosity and the harmony of elements it proposes, in turn effects a kind of invitation, a persuasion of the eye back into the thornier dialectical challenges. This is no bait-and-switch that pulls us into choppy waters by promising us a smooth sail; the facture itself provides a foretaste of the agitated relationships into which it ushers us. Resulting from unsettled relationships, the facture in Peters, new work is seductive but not slick, alluring but not pandering. Its appeal resides as much in its promise of deeper perceptual challenges as in its indication of partial (but only partial) resolution. The facture thus makes an unalloyed virtue of Kuspit's "negative dialectics." What we find when we go beyond the facture is an instability that is itself pleasurable to our perception. Such pleasure results from our apprehension of Peters' virtuosic coordination of conflicting elements—the "ingenious discontinuities" Kuspit identifies—but also from the incompleteness, the open-endedness, of the elements themselves. That is, the struggle between factors to assert themselves—a struggle in which, as observed, no one factor gains the upper hand (and which, like sports, is inherently exciting)—prevents any of those factors from becoming whole, much less dominant. Blended, even elusive colors comprise Peters' palette, offset by crucially introduced strokes of intensely contrasted primaries, blacks, or whites. His compositions are powerfully, but not always obviously, asymmetrical (sometimes pretending to the rudiments of modular repetition). Representational imagery normally appears only as broad, crude inflections. Such imagery—notably architectural fragments, implied interiors, and the more-than-occasional soupçon of a figure (albeit pared down nearly to its skeleton)—very often works with the gradations in the painted fields to construct a recessive space, almost to the point where we can identify foreground, midground and background. A lot goes on in any Peters painting, and we enjoy both the busyness and the pictorial logic that saves that busyness from entropic decay, from devolving into mere busyness. In Peters' most recent paintings the imagery has attained a greater level of definition than previously—a development parallel to increased compositional poise and linear and coloristic contrast. Still, however more concrete the imagery has become, it remains fluid as opposed to fixed, coalescent as opposed to truly coherent. To borrow a term most recently employed with regard to stem cell research, we might call such imagery "pluripotential," still capable of evolving in any of several directions. In this pluripotentiality, and the accompanying avoidance of formal entropy, Peters' painting remains aesthetically late-modern as opposed to post-modern—in which case the imagery would be static, that is to say entropic, in their incompleteness—or high-modern—in which case the incompleteness would be a formal strategy averring a "complete" approach to imagery that posited an alternate to the 19th century verist model. Peters' work is post-ideological, representing no particular extra-artistic credo; but its visual dialectics sustain a dynamism that begins formally and, in its sensuosity, takes on larger somatic resonance. The work reconsiders the gestural theatrics of abstract expressionism, concentrating them into a more civil discourse—that is, a discourse less about the passion of the individual ego and more about the hermeneutic (again, identified by Kuspit) Peters establishes between his own mind and hand, the painting that results, and the viewer's grasp of the artwork. In physically and mentally working and reworking his panels, Peters indulges his audience as much as he does his own eye; he seeks not simply to say something, but to say it with exacting calibration. It is important to stress, again, that prime among the factors Peters calibrates is the open-endedness of his paintings. Having developed a post-abstract expressionist style dependent above all on his own trained—if you will, calibrated—intuition, Peters strives to preserve each painting's pluripotentiality. This is not a matter of simply leaving paintings "unfinished," but of thinking of paintings as inherently unfinishable. And it is not simply a matter of accepting Duchamp's dictum that "the viewer completes the work of art," but of setting out myriad possibilities for the viewer's engagement—without lapsing into didacticism or suggesting outcomes. Peters does not send us into free fall, but neither does he tell us where to fly. Indeed, he only provides us hints at how. Peters' work has an organicism to it, a "messy order" that mirrors nature's eternal experimentation. If this doesn't work, goes this modus operandi, let's try that. If this idea comes a cropper, recycle it and see what about it does prove promising. If this path proves a dead end, backtrack and take, or forge, another path. Darwin's glorious mechanism of life, ever open to mistakes and corrections, interruptions and variations, ruptures and slippages, here manifests in microcosm. In their pluripotentiality, Sammy Peters' paintings do not simply depict nature; they are natural.
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Peter Frank is Associate editor for Fabrik Magazine and former Senior Curator at the Riverside (CA) Art Museum, He has served as Editor of THEmagazine Los Angeles and Visions Art Quarterly and as critic for Angeleno magazine and the L.A. Weekly.