I finally had a chance to chat at length with the prolific painter Sammy Peters, at the February Group Exhibition which opened on Feb. 22nd at Mason Fine Art and Events. His lovely wife was gracious enough to allow me unfettered access, while I peppered him with questions about his process and his work. Peters has shown in Atlanta before, with the Lowe Gallery, the Alan Avery Gallery and now at Mark Mason Karelson’s new location on Plasters Ave. From Little Rock, Arkansas, the artist still lives there and works in a huge space that his father used for his sign printing business.
The paintings that fill one large gallery space in the current exhibit date from 2011 to 2018, a majority are from 2017 and from the first few months of 2018. In these works as in his previous paintings, fabric and paper are used as collage layers, often painted over. Peters enjoys utilizing stripes, checks and patterns in his work, adding texture and a degree of structure to his gestural swipes and drips. I had conducted a 2013 interview via email with Peters for my blog, and although we talked for some time at this recent opening, the reluctance to demystify his process remains intact.
Four small paintings from 2017 were hung together, 16 in x 12 in.
Verbalization of a visual medium can be counter productive. As with music, a good painting should hit us emotionally, and language – for all its strengths – can never completely describe or explain either sensory perception. It helps to have some knowledge of theory, both in color and music – otherwise one might be tempted to label much abstract work “incoherent”, as one friend naively and unjustly claimed. Coherence and communication are terms strictly attuned to branding and advertising; the message that sells a product. Since when does any art have to communicate and elucidate unless we talk about illustrations framing a narrative? And don’t get me started on music. Does anyone in their right mind demand that Sonny Rollins explain what the hell he’s doing by going off on those extraneous sax tangents? Another jazz musician may understand the progressions, but for the most part, the audience is inadequately prepared to verbally explain the titan’s “sound-making”.
Again, language is over-rated in these spheres and especially when it comes to trying to define an artist like Peters. His work remains tantalizingly and sublimely obscure. Even his titles seem to purposefully throw one off the trail; “Essence: inseparable; illusion”, “Tentative: underlying; spaces”, “Declaration: evolving; artifacts” – you get the picture.
The critic Peter Frank in his 2001 essay on Peters’ work remarks, “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….Still, however more concrete the imagery has become, it remains fluid as opposed to fixed, coalescent as opposed to truly coherent.”
Manifest: proposition; revealed, 2018. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 72 in x 60 in. (and close-up)
What art should be able to do is to provoke and evoke a reaction. And like progressions or phrasing in modern musical composition, abstract mark making can be tracked through art’s recent historical timeline. These paintings hit us in the gut with wild and violent gestural marks, while offering a grid type structure to navigate the work via an architectural construct. I would compare Peters’ work to more intellectually provocative contemporary music in its ability to elicit emotion through the dynamics of color and form. Thomas Adès, John Taverner, Vijay Iyer offer similar compositions of complex structure, that speak to mysticism, transcendence and the sensuousness of stringed instruments.
As we talked, Peters again referenced Willem de Kooning as one of his favorite painters and revealed an anecdote that dates to the early days of Abstract Expressionism. However, he is also influenced by Matisse, the framing in some of his works could be interpreted as a riff on those celebrated windows. Vuillard and Bonnard seem to be in the mix as well, just for the Nabis’ love of pattern, texture and those shots of dense black that delineate form.
“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.” – Lloyd W. Benjamin, III, Dean of Fine Arts, University of Arkansas, Little Rock.
Disclosed: inner; affirmation, 2018. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 30 in x 40 in.
Tentative: underlying; spaces, 2013. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 60 in x 72 in.
Declaration: evolving; artifacts, 2018. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 48 in x 48 in. (and close-up)
Enigma: impenetrable; boundary, 2017. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 60 in x 48 in. (and close-up)
Irreducible: absolute; content, 2017. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 48 in x 60 in. (and close-up)
Emblematic: integral; function, 2011. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 60 in x 48 in. (and close-up)
Displacement: returning; notion, 2012. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 48 in x 60 in. (and close-up)
Peters also shows with LewAllen Contemporary in Santa Fe, Stremmel Gallery in Reno, Greg Thompson Fine Art in Little Rock, M. A. Doran Gallery in Tulsa and Jay Etkin Gallery in Memphis.
That anecdote: Peters was having dinner years ago with friends and the infamous Ruth Kligman, Jackson Pollock’s lover who was with Pollock when he crashed into a tree and died. Kligman survived. It’s well known that Kligman had romantic dalliances with de Kooning, Pollock and as her NY Times 2010 obituary notes, “she was friendly with Jasper Johns, to whom she once proposed, and with Franz Kline, whose former studio on 14th Street became her home and the studio where she continued to paint almost to the end of her life.” Peters’ friend at dinner asked Kligman which of the painters was the most proficient in bed. She replied without hesitation; “Kline!”
In doing some research on Peters, I found this lovely and entertaining article about him and two other artist pals who have lunched together for over thirty years.
“Time and Place” documentary by Hop Litzwire features Peters working in his large studio.
Find recent work at the artist’s website.
Mason Fine Art is spacious, with an abundance of natural light. The exhibit is on view until April 7.
Mason Fine Art, 415 Plasters Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30324. P: 404.879.1500
Gallery Hours Tuesday through Friday, 11:00 AM to 5:00 PM and Saturday, Noon to 5:00 PM