Painting for the Delectation of the Inner Eye

If you want to visit Sammy Peters in his studio, you will be directed to a former sign fabricating and painting shop located adjacent to a stretch of Little Rock's declining urban sprawl noted for its visual offensiveness. Upon entering his shop, however, you find a spacious atelier attached to a storefront where printing and stenciling were done for banners and signs. When I visited, the gently lighted studio was filled with the subtle complexities of a Bach fugue mixed with the smells of paint and thinner. Sammy Peters learned about drawing and painting as well as the more quotidian aspects of commercial art growing up in his father's shop. He knows billboard art and the secrets for creating large surfaces with recognizable content and flat fields of color and letters that stay in one plane. Mass marketing concentrates on describing what the eye sees. In marked contrast, Peters paints to satisfy the visual sense and for the delectation of the inner eye.

Stylistically, Peters' work belongs to the tradition of abstract expressionism--perhaps America's greatest single contribution to the history of art. This movement dominated New York in the years immediately following the Second World War. It was an extremely individualistic style signifying, perhaps, the assertion of the individual in response to the defeat of totalitarianism. Artistically, it signaled a strong reaction against the tight, analytical and anemic-colored surfaces of the Cubists. Abstract expressionist painting is characterized as painterly and the painted surface is a record of the dramatic gestures that were used to lay on the pigments. Among the early contributors to the movement were Pollock, De Kooning, Hofmann, Kline, Still and Rothko.

For the uninitiated observer who is untrusting of nonrepresentational art in general, and unfamiliar with Sammy Peters' art in particular, it might be difficult to understand his loosely painted surfaces or respond to the pulsating immediacy of the dynamics of his designs. By what standard do you evaluate this bold brush work, the lack of narration or description and the drippy gestural annotations? Viewed, however, within the context of historical development, one will come to understand the aesthetic concerns of the artist and the sincerity of his effort to further this particular direction in painting. The longer one studies his paintings the more one will appreciate the uniqueness of each piece and admire the vitality of his technique that differentiates on work from another. How difficult it is to make the invisible visible or give shape to the unconscious impulses utilizing only lines, shapes, colors and rhythms. For Peters, each work is a dynamic statement of his concerns as an artist. Peters is most demanding of himself and makes each new work a departure from what came before.

The dynamic quality of Peters' paintings reflects the tradition of abstract action painting and especially the work of Pollock who evolved a technique of dripping and smearing paint on a large canvas removed from the easel and placed on the ground. Peters also works generally on a large scale, sometimes attaching the surface to be painted to the wall of his studio. The canvas become, therefore, an environment or field in which the artist's actions are recorded. Pollock would often not know the final dimensions of the work until he had stopped painting and cut the finished piece out of the canvas field and attached it to a stretcher. Peters, perhaps as a reflection of his training and experience as a sign painter, often works with a standard module of 90x68 inches or variations thereof. In contrast to most earlier abstract expressionists, Peters will sometimes work on a diptych or triptych format thus expanding the field on which he paints.

Some of the works in this exhibit belong to various series bearing titles such as Pylon Fugue or Sleeping Carnival. It is not his purpose to illustrate a particular theme (the titles are generally messages from the unconscious), rather, the works are the results of a process of investigation of certain formal problems or issues of interest to the artist. In general, process takes precedent over any predetermined end and a piece is considered finished when a point of satisfying stasis is reached.The various series often share similar iconographic motifs such as a triangle(referred to as a "wedge" by Peters) or pylon (the monumental entrance to an Egyptian temple). These are appreciated as shapes to be integrated into the field of action. Because they are recognizable forms, they assert a specific presence which the artist must control or balance through the manipulation of color, texture, rhythm, values, and shapes across the entire surface of the work. It is interesting to note that some insight into the philosophical basis of abstract art may be found in Plato's comment upon the life of geometric forms. "I do not now intend by beauty of shapes what most people would expect, such as that of living creatures or pictures, but...straight lines and curves and the surfaces or sold forms produced out of these...These things are not relatively beautiful, like other things, but always and naturally and absolutely". (Philebus) Peters' wedges and pylons serve to establish a formal hierarchy in the paintings before, behind and around which the other elements vie for relative positions in space.

Peters' work can be characterized as a dramatic balancing or juggling act in which multiple artistic concerns and formal considerations are entertained simultaneously. By that I am suggesting that what one sees in the finished piece is the result of an intense struggle with the various aspects of the design operating according to their own unique properties or frequencies, if you will. Sweeping gestural marks play off against lines escaping containment. I am reminded of Hans Hofmann's "push-pull" principle by which he described the inherent characteristic of juxtaposed colors to appear to move backward or forward in the space of the painting creating a sense of vitality. In Peters' work, the play is more contrapuntal and intricate. Recognizable shapes play against negative spaces or areas of abstract brushwork and paint drips which one senses are more "real" or objectively present than the simulated pylon or wedge shapes. How ironic that these geometric and architectonic forms should be challenged by accidental drips! And equally ironic is the suggestion that these accidental markings, remnants of the process of automatic painting, belie the deliberative aspects of aesthetic decision in the crucible of the creative process that brings about the fusion of inspiration, spontaneity, technique, and history.

Peters' work is about the art of making art. He is uninterested in creating works that describe or narrate; rather, his actions are freed from historical, religious and social content and constraints. Harold Rosenberg once described the abstract painting movement as essentially religious implying that painting was an existential act of personal assertion in which the artist opens himself to risk taking and possibilities. The result is a textured image in which individual elements (to use a musical analogy-individual consonances and dissonances) are weighed and the image, more often than not, is the resolution of a struggle between the self and the dictates of the canvas. This process of give and take has a "fugal" counterpart in the elementary "push-pull" of the design elements.

When asked if he considered his work to be spiritual, Peters responded"yes". He enjoys the actual process of painting but is equally aware that the artful manipulation of the base materials should create a heightened visual moment. Peters is capable of bringing cacophony into artful resonance and like Bach's fugal variations, each work is similar to the others in the series, but at the same time profoundly different. While each painting bears the imprint of the stressful process that brought it into being, it can only be considered successful if it engages the observer in intense personal dialogue. The works in this show comprise a whole and reflect the integrity of Sammy Peters' engaging artistic vision.
Stacks Image 19
Lloyd W. Benjamin III
President Emeritus and Trustee Professor, Indiana State University