Sammy Peters: Paintings on Paper and Canvas

"Presence" is the word that seems to best describe their initial impact of Sammy Peters paintings on the viewer. Each is a corporeal existent, a Dasein, a physical, thought-numbing presence, before it is anything else. Its forms do not become signs—although they seem to be struggling painfully toward meaning. None of the paintings look "finished," so that you are immediately caught up in the process of painting. It is a very complex process, which somehow seems to be still going on while you watch.

Described as "mixed media on paper, canvas, plywood," these paintings—some as large as 8 x 8 feet—seem to have been evolving for centuries. Countless layers of thick, waxy, often translucent paint have been brushed or troweled on, gouged or drawn through, dripped on, glazed over and scraped off. Although there are flashes and crescendos of bright colors, these gain their brilliance by emerging from a ground of muddy, unnameable colors that look like the primeval mud out of which life emerged. Structures may arise out of this supercharged mud, and then melt back into it in a shower of drips, or be condensed into a tiny black shape, like a black hole, or be annihilated altogether, covered over by glaciers of paint, dark matter spawning stars or monsters.

Such presence is an emotional perception, an experience more of the body than of the mind. It's a function of the intellect to protect us from that kind of thing—to create a space between the self and a phenomenon which threatens to absorb it. If you are able to take that creative step backward from the existential—almost breathing—presence of these works, it is just that emerging and submerging of form that begins give them a conceptual dimension, a "content." They may not immediately evoke any thoughts about the abstract expressionists or other art historical matters, but peering through the complex, translucent, strip-mined surfaces of these pictures, you soon realize that you are looking at some kind of history. But a history of what? They seem to be more archaeological or even geological than historical. They might be thought of as objectifications of the evolution of form, incomplete records of the differentiation of order out of chaos, or as excavations into consciousness itself. Indeed, consciousness is what I seemed to be in the presence of, standing alone in the gallery, after closing time, surrounded by these paintings: creative consciousness as a kind of force, at once dangerously alien and intimately personal.

In his essay for Peters' exhibition catalog Donald Kuspit makes much of the artist's titles, each of which he takes to be derived from the work it's attached to, but actually, the titles seem to have nothing at all to do with the paintings. They could all be redistributed at random with no harm done to the exhibition. Peters has said that his titles might tell you something about his thoughts at the time he made them up but wouldn't tell you anything about the paintings. However, they do run parallel to the dialectical tensions in the work. Typically, they state a synthesis first, then a thesis and its antithesis: Thrust: perception; uncertain, Function: mask; manifest, and so forth. Analysis of these labels can certainly be very rewarding, as Kuspit has discovered; it's just that they are more descriptive of the whole body of Peters' work than of the individual painting they happen to be attached to.
Even Kuspit qualifies his readings: "Peters' titles," he writes, "are in fact suggestive, not descriptive, guides to their unconscious import, not tautological reiterations of their content."

In fact the dialectic is as many-layered as the paintings themselves. For example, there are two ways to look at these paintings. Looking from one to the other, taking in the whole gallery in a slow sweep, it's clear that altogether they constitute a continuum: a kind flowing process of creation and destruction, growth and mutilation, birth and death. Forms are passed from one work to the next, but undergoing in the process Proteus-like inversions, fractures, compressions, expansions, extrusions, submersions, liquefactions and near annihilations. Seen in this way, the paintings seem to depend on each other for their impact and meaning, as if they are really just one multi-panelled work. On the other hand, if you concentrate on just one painting at a time, it is overwhelmingly apparent that each one is an autonomous entity, a discrete object, sufficient unto itself-without, however, giving a sense of closure. This is not really a contradiction. Scientists use two apparently opposing theories to explain light: one defines it as an electromagnetic wave, the other as a particle, a quantum of energy. Even though light is a continuum in one theory and a collection of discrete particles in the other, both are nevertheless "true," depending on what questions you are asking. The same goes for these paintings.

Another example in Peters' work of this kind of dialectic is the apparent contradiction between the messy, open, deliberately unfinished condition of his paintings and the flawless, almost Raphaelesque precision of their composition. Yet both observations are "true." Every random splatter seems to belong just there and nowhere else. I think it is these not-quite-resolved dialectical tensions that give Peters' work its uncanny, organic presence.

Maybe the most important dialectic going on here is between the abstract and the concrete. The presence I've been talking about—that sense of being surrounded by not quite inanimate, almost conscious, objects—is anything but abstract. An abstraction is an idea, a concept, an essence. Those things are certainly there, as I've suggested, but you have to annul that concrete presence before you can contemplate them. Presence, after all, is the antithesis of reflection: we can reflect only on things in our past. The synthesis of abstract/concrete—essence/existence, present/past—is the great challenge to the viewer of Sammy Peters' paintings. If, like Odysseus, you can hold on to shape-shifting Proteus long enough, he may eventually give up his secrets. And even if he doesn't, it will be an unforgettable encounter.
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Warren Criswell is a painter, sculptor, animator, printmaker and art writer