Jon Peterson: 12 Years of Painting
Feb. 1-Feb. 25, 2018
LA Artcore Gallery, Los Angeles
By Constance Mallinson
Contemporary painting is still beholden to the modernist fixation of an artist producing a body or series of identical signature work, a strategy that ensures “product identification” and branding for insertion into what Theodore Adorno called “the culture industry.” Painters are particularly recognized and marketed by their ownership of, and expertise in, a repeated stylistic or conceptual approach regardless of how or why they developed their unique look. Picasso’s stylistic promiscuity aside, to do otherwise risks a charge of uncritical pastiche or dilettante-ism.
In his show of extremely diverse paintings at L.A. Artcore that closed February 25, Jon Peterson stands against the tide of the one artist/one painting syndrome. In the 12-year survey (2009-2018) nearly every subject and stylistic approach is deemed suitable for a painting. Defying exhibition norms, he most adheres to the path taken by polymath German painter Gerhard Richter. Like Richter, Peterson came of artistic age in the 1970s when gridded Minimalist formalism dominated studio art. (Traces of his earliest large scale gridded paintings are seen in the latest abstract “map” paintings.) For Richter styles and genres of painting have been interchangeable: formalist geometric fields were followed by photo realist portraits, landscapes and still lifes, then swapped for bold, colorful large scale painterly squeegeed abstractions. Similarly, Peterson seems to have worked his way encyclopedically through the modernist canon, not as a critical endgame ideologue or parodist, but through admiration and emulation, to understand the nature of painting itself. Richter has insisted that to fully appreciate him—and key to understanding Peterson’s painting practice as well– all aspects of his artistic production must be considered; each painting is, in effect, the necessary prequel to others. Such a modus operandi has the potential to appear as simply a technical exercise devoid of feeling or passion, or conversely, to drastically infuse one’s technique to the point of breathtaking pictures.
Multiple painting genres are represented: intimate, modestly scaled, naturalistic portraits of family, friends, beloved pets, and self; vivid landscapes influenced by a wide range of historical styles from Post Impressionism, the Fauves to Munch; current or historical events like The Battle of Algiers, based on mass media imagery and rendered in musty evocative tones; a highly expressive series painted from the quirky images in a found sketchbook of a young woman named Phyllis; painterly abstraction is well represented. Like Richter, Peterson frequently uses photographs as image sources, with any emotions in the original photographs subsequently augmented by expert paint handling, moody palettes, compositional accentuations, as if to restore the auras lost to mechanical reproduction. Most affecting of these are Peterson’s paintings appropriated from prisoner mugshots– gritty, gray, gloomy and full of pathos.
Most recent is the “Ellsworth Kelly Series” (2012-2018) initiated by a New York Times photograph of the painter Ellsworth Kelly standing next to a messy paint covered wall in his studio. In Portrait of Ellsworth Kelly, Peterson has painted only half of the Kelly figure with no identifiable head, his arm hanging at his side—perhaps to signify any painter– in the lower right corner of the canvas. The greater portion of the canvas is filled with floating daubs, loaded brushstrokes and swatches of Kelly primary colors that only hint at this modern master’s grand oeuvre of hard-edged abstraction, but are a record of his time painting. The painting not only masterfully and humorously plays with definitions of abstraction and figuration but also reveals a truth behind the endeavors required to consummate a painting. This white wall, or “canvas”, was the mental and physical space where Kelly explored his color combinations and potential shapes. It bore the traces of his career long struggles to arrive at the exact form of the final paintings. A metaphor for all painters and especially autobiographical for Peterson, the portrait suggests that painting grows organically and involves the artist’s history, habits, personal psychology, and idiosyncratic aesthetic preferences. Genius does not singularly spring forth without all the puzzle pieces working in tandem.
At the back of the gallery the recent works in the Kelly series (2017-18) are on view. The Kelly portrait provides a cipher for the mostly abstract “Map” paintings with its sandwiching of immersed figuration, loosely rendered actual urban maps, vivid chromatics overlaid on concrete grey grounds, and gestural pyrotechnics. Such amalgamations could indicate a maturation, summation or accumulation of his years of painterly investigations. More likely for Peterson, though, the ongoing Kelly series is just another level of inquiry in his quest for great painting.