Jon Peterson: The Arc of History
“Painting is self discovery. Every good artist paints what he is. The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through.” ~Jackson Pollock
Written by Gary Brewer
Life is a journey through the labyrinth: an artist’s work is like Ariadne’s thread, allowing one to find their way back to their beginnings. Artists often start the journey influenced by certain concepts that frame the art of their time. Through time they shed what is not true to themselves, and in so doing, find a unique vision and voice. The vicissitudes of fate can change our path, guiding us into another chapter and then return us back to where we began.
Jon Peterson is an artist whose career has traversed several disciplines and endeavors. He began as a painter in the 1970’s, working in a material/process-oriented form of abstraction. He used the grid and radiating lines to create a visual armature that would allow the incidents and accidents of materials interacting to create novel approaches to painting.
He discovered a certain kind of vellum paper that was used for making maps. He bought up all that he could find and layered them together with pigments and mediums, utilizing minimalist compositions. By focusing on the way the vellum interacted with the materials, he created rich process pieces, where one could see through the layers to the various stages of the work’s creation.
These pieces would take days to dry and during that drying period he started making grid-based sculptures: tower-like forms inspired by the Watts Towers. These organically progressed into more complex ideas. He was influenced by Bruce Nauman’s sculptures and started to make wall works that were human scale; some that a viewer could step into. Slowly the works evolved and Jon became inspired by an artist friend who was placing works outside, in the downtown LA environment.
Jon made a sculptural piece that was created to be installed outside, in an abandoned lot. He dug an angled hole in the ground and placed this open structure – large enough for a person to fit into, in the ground; partially burying it. “ This sculpture was really a formalist object that I wanted to put outside to interact with the environment. I had lived in DTLA for years and I wanted to create this work as an experiment, to see what would happen.” The next day, someone had pulled it out of the ground and made it their home; the project that his friends dubbed “Bum Shelters” was born.
For several years he received a great deal of attention, getting commissions from different cities to come and create these socio-political works that spanned a range of ideas and issues. And yet, because of the way these works were interpreted and how his ideas were framed, Jon started to lose interest in the art world.
Around this time he received a ten thousand dollar NEA grant. It was more money than he had every seen and with this money and two artist friends, Jon was able to buy his first building in DTLA, near 6th and San Pedro. His interest shifted to developing these properties and buying more; creating artists live/work lofts in DTLA. Though he continued to paint, it was this business that became the focus of his life. Over the next fifteen years, Jon invested his talent as a developer to create several live/work complexes including Long Beach Ave Loft’s, 688 Santa Fe Avenue Lofts, and Little Tokyo Lofts.
In 2005, Jon was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness and given three years to live. It was a moment of reckoning and he reflected on what was most important to him in his life. “I realized that these things were my wife, my son and my dogs. I told my business partner that I was stepping down from being actively involved in the day-to-day business and I focused on these things that I held most dear.” It was at this point that he began painting full time again.
He said about this, “I had no interest in the art world per se, though it was probably somewhere in the back of my mind. I was just focused on the pleasure of painting and I only painted the things I loved: my wife, my son and my dogs.” He went on to paint several other subjects that interested him, but kept the work private, not showing anyone what he was doing. During this time, novel protocols for his form of cancer were being developed. Jon was treated with an array of drugs and treatments that brought him to the very edge of death. Through fate and good fortune fifteen years later, his cancer is still in remission.
As his skills returned as a painter, Jon began to rediscover different approaches that satisfied that existential hunger for creation, invention and expression. He began to return to his aesthetic origins: materials, process and accident as a springboard to new approaches to painting. However his near death experience had given him a much more personal need for an exuberant form of expressionism. The paintings speak to the joy of living, as well as to the layers of mystery and unknown forces that give shape to one’s life and work.
Jon has developed a rich body of work that alludes to many elements of his life. Several years ago, at the Pasadena flea market, he purchased a book of drawings by a young woman named Phyllis T. It was a sketchbook that contained her drawings from the age of ten, until she was thirty. Jon said of these, “They were so pure in their intention, just the act of creation for one’s self. There was something that moved me and inspired me. I was able to use these drawing as a basis for my paintings. With Phyllis giving me the literal content, I was able to develop my skills at composition and color. I just used these drawings as my armature and starting point and then improvised, arriving at the first works where I felt there was something there. That I could begin to enter the art world and show the world what I was doing. I had something to contribute.”
Around this time he was driving with some friends in DTLA. In his car there is a large screen display for maps, directions, apps etc. Jon had the system set to maps and there was the grid of DTLA on the large screen. One of his friends in the car said that it looked interesting and that it might be a good subject for him to use in his paintings. This simple suggestion was the beginning of his current body of work; a powerful concept and design that is the foundation upon which he intuitively develops his paintings into rich, expressive, near abstractions.
The paintings are densely layered, the waxy encaustic adding a rich physicality to the works, and the lines scratched into the surface give the paintings a visceral immediacy. Jon scrapes down the surfaces as well, to reveal hidden layers and to allow accidents to inspire fresh passages of painterly expressionism. The colors freely explore a range between lightness and dark. Bright yellows and reds are counterbalanced with dark earthy greens, blues and blood reds. The balance between intuitive gestural painting and the logic of map designs creates a synaptic dance. The mind’s apprehension of the rich interplay of elements is an interaction between the rational and irrational forces that shape one’s soul.
When I asked about them Jon replied, “I am too close to them to really understand what they are. The grid of the map has a graphic strength that allows me to freely improvise. Things are more cohesive and composition is less critical to the painting. I build up layer upon layer and then scrape them down to get rich surfaces and unexpected accidents that give me something to work off of.”
In my mind, these paintings are complex vectors where his history as an artist and the years he spent as a developer building live/work spaces commingle in a poetic whole. It is a form of diaristic painting revealing the thread of his history through time. Jon’s early years as a painter; the “Bum Shelters”, creating studio spaces for artists to work and live; his near death experience that led him back into painting – can all be felt in the palimpsest of these works. The pentimento of these many stages in his life, animate these epic paintings with a rich pulsating energy.
Jon Peterson’s paintings are a reflection of the ever-becoming nature of the human spirit. Though the forces of life can upend our plans and transform our physical body, weakening us; we can endure and in so doing, reinvent the world anew. Through this, we contribute another line to this eternal story: the human condition expressed through the thread of myth and metaphor that binds us all together.