Sammy Peters: Painting Unbound

At a time when painting seems under particular siege – both from outside its ranks and within – a mature, distinctive, indeed ineffable painter like Sammy Peters presents himself as at once anachronistic and timely. Peters' allegiance to painterly practice is not the most remarkable aspect of his half-century oeuvre; but in the context of painting today, it may be the most heartening. It is too much to turn Peters and painters like him into heroes fighting a valiant rear-guard battle – the metaphor cannot hold, not least because Peters himself has no use for it – but this opportunity to witness the overarching achievement of a painter who serves his muse with skill, verve, and distinction no less than with loyalty greatly eases the despair so many in the art world (certainly in America) feel these days about the condition of painting. Their concerns are real, but perhaps they are looking in the wrong places.

Have no doubt: The challenges posed to the practice of painting, in the United States most particularly, by the digitization of aesthetic as well as quotidian consciousness on the one hand and the monetization of contemporary art on the other do threaten to rob painting and its practitioners of their autonomy. Indeed, the reduction of painting (more than most other visual-art disciplines) to the status of negotiable object – one rendered at all "precious" by its historical trappings rather than any inherent merit (meaning that it is judged by its value rather than its worth) – renders its audience insensitive to its genuine allure as a unique medium and to the accomplishments of its devoted practitioners, past and especially present. Painting By The Yard – or, if you would, Zombie Abstraction – might seem the logical response to the vitiation of the discourse in painting, a response of surrender, a kind of Stockholm syndrome. This capitulation to tendentiousness, however, to the art market as a market, reduces painting to the production of no-longer-unique goods, easily representable as on-line images.

Painting may be harnessed like this to the needs and expectations of those who want to own it and traffic in it; but, irrespective of the value placed on such domesticated art, it dies in captivity. Painting's ability to seduce and astound and mystify – its most salient aspects, its reason for existing – cannot be packaged or, for that matter, adequately conveyed in reproduction. Sammy Peters' approach to painting, in particular, relies on peculiarities of surface, of color relationships, and of the dynamic between forms as they dispose themselves across, and into, a picture plane. He does so with an ingenuity and wit so many other painters strive for (or, at best, achieve but milk dry), an optical dexterity that defies disentanglement, partly because of its intricacy but mostly because of the pleasure provided by its elaborate language and ongoing ability to surprise. You can't synopsize paintings like these. Each is a tightly woven delectation of visual ideas and events. Peters' art is obdurately irreducible: its richness – the elaborate volubility of any one painting and the sense of adventure, of the unpredictable, that maintains between paintings – seems actively to resist visual or conceptual suppression. You can't flatten this stuff.

This survey show evinces Peters' source in abstract expressionism, especially in the metamorphosis that America's predominant mid-century art movement underwent early in the 1960s. As of 1962 Peters was still building paintings out of gestural accumulations; by the next year the formal language that would inform his mature work was asserting itself. The eccentric – partly organic, partly geometric, partly calligraphic, partly cartoonish – lines and shapes that comprise Peters's work of the past quarter century (or at least provide its armature) can already be seen articulating as loosely drawn icons, contours, and notations. As of the mid-1980s Peters was passing through a phase in which diagrammatic marks score what are otherwise highly painterly areas and drawing elements activate large planar swaths of paint. (By "large swaths" is meant both proportionally broad areas, occupying the bulk of any picture, and broad physical expanses, dominating very large paintings.)Ambitious if formulaic, these open, horizontal panels return Peters to his youthful appreciation of the gesture – an appreciation he fully harnessed by about 1988, when mind and method quickly clicked into place. At this point Peters was making his way towards a new, more confident, entirely self-sustaining look, a look at least as hard to emulate as it is to identify.

Since then, Peters has accumulated one of the most curious and startling bodies of work in contemporary painting. Characterized by a rich, varied, and eccentric array of forms interacting in a manner somehow both fluid and monumental – a manner that hovers between architecture and choreography – Peters's approach to painting straddles the material and the pictorial, delights in sensuous skin and color relationships at once dissonant and delicious, and combines the decorative and the narrative without telling stories or striving for retinal gratification. Such painting evades classification with a chameleon's elusiveness, implicitly taunting those who would try to entrap it.

The joke is on those who need their art tidily labeled. Consistent as his painting may have been over the last three decades, Sammy Peters makes unfixable, unlabelable paintings. While they bear a certain familial resemblance in their idiosyncratic line and maximalist composition to various anti-formalist tendencies in America (Chicago Imagism, California Funk, Delta expressionism), they cannot be associated definitively with any art movement. Product of a geographic and cultural milieu relatively inimical to what he does, Peters is one of those inexplicable originals who fills a stylistic gap we didn't know was there. He doesn't simply fall between styles, he threatens to upend our notion of artistic style altogether. Such heterogeneity can madden tidy minds, but it can delight open eyes – especially given the permission it gives both Peters and his audience to allow for exceptions, cultivate eclecticism, connect disparate passages to one another, and generally have a good time being serious about painting. Peters doesn't simply paint, after all, he investigates and conflates the myriad conditions of painting – and takes our eyes with him on his wild ride, heading off, as they say, in all directions. This is the kind of painting that keeps painting alive and viable, the art market and the Internet be damned.
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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.