“Portraits are universal”: Peter Malone in Conversation with Jeanne Wilkinson
We are pleased to share this interview by Jeanne Wilkinson with painter and artcritical contributor Peter Malone, on the occasion of his solo exhibition at Blue Mountain Gallery, in Chelsea, on view through February 21.
JEANNE WILKINSON: Are you concerned about your place in the current art world?
PETER MALONE: It matters a lot to me that I’m seen in the context of what everyone else is doing, especially because I’m doing these conservative-looking portraits. I hate the idea of being shunted aside in a group of representational painters. I’m in the early stages of organizing an exhibition of portraiture that will focus on a contemporary painting, but will make no special reference to the edginess that often accompanies exhibitions of this type.
What do you mean by the word conservative?
Conservative is an extremely abused word. In the context of my painting it means not trying to be edgy, trying hard to avoid edginess and other contemporary art clichés. These paintings are as simple as a portrait can get. One of the few rules I set up for myself during this project was to insist that my sitters look directly at the viewer, so that a person coming into the gallery is confronted with someone looking right at them. I find when sitters turn away, they become a figure, an art school model. I dislike that insularity — that sense that the entire exercise is about being inside the art world. I want to portray people as they appear to us in our conversations with one another, without making it look as if they’re sitting on a pedestal in an artificial studio setting.
Another danger is the look of a photograph, so I try to stay away from the more obvious conventions of portrait photography, like frontal lighting.
You mean like a flash?
Yes, a flash right in a person’s face, or the way talking heads are lit for television. I work very hard to get the lighting spread unevenly. I don’t want a full tenebrism, but as rich a range of contrast as possible without killing the color of the darker side. I prefer to play warm against cool. I find the people who teach and paint in more traditional (conservative) modes tend toward tonal painting with very dark gray shadows, and I try to avoid that. The whole project has been a learning process. There are a lot of formal things I’ve had to teach myself.
Craft is a word that has long been disparaged, but what you’re talking about is the craft of painting.
Yeah. I still like the idea of matching what you do to what you see. A person who knows nothing about painting can see that these are convincing images of people’s faces, and if they know nothing else about painting they won’t get much out of it beyond that; but it is a starting point. There are other concerns. Craft isn’t everything. You can be a very competent painter and a very dull artist.
So craft is a vehicle.
It’s an important vehicle because otherwise you’re just left with evidentiary narcissism. A painting should be more than proof that the painter had an experience that was personally meaningful to them. The result of their work should be meaningful to the viewer as well. Maybe not in the same way as it was to the painter, but meaningful in some shared human way.
Do you have an ideal viewer of your work?
I suppose an attentive viewer, certainly an educated one. Portraits are universal. Try to avoid looking at your fellow travelers across the aisle of a subway car. We are fascinated by each other’s faces. The viewer I imagine is a viewer that I can’t completely separate from my own habits as a viewer. I no longer believe painters should paint entirely for themselves. You step back eight feet from the canvas — a routine aspect of the painting process — and the scale gets thrown off and the contrast disappears and all sorts of problems arise. That is because eight feet away from your work you’ve entered public space. How the work is going to be seen by viewers is a public concern. And a concern with the public aspect of art is what separates a professional artist from an amateur.
It certainly affects my choices of what to leave in and what to remove or change, whether to push the painting in one direction or another. One of my favorite books is Lewis Hyde’s The Gift (1983); his description of a gift economy, which freed me from obsessing over selling work, helped me to re-assess this idea that artists only paint for themselves. I like the idea that I am creating something that is to be given to someone, the viewer, the public, via an exhibition. And I try to address that responsibility while I paint.
My first written review — which proved too long for the editors but it’s on my website — was a comparison of a Barnett Newman and a Cy Twombly. They each had a piece at Sotheby’s and I thought I’d compare them. The conclusion I came to was that Newman was generous while Twombly was stingy. Newman is a visual painter who applies a shared cultural sense of color and geometry with his audience, whereas Twombly looks like he is hiding what he’s doing. All you get from him are indecipherable clues. People I respect find Twombly poetic. I don’t. I find his work irritating. It’s a very common perception that artists have to be lost in an introspective world. Introspection is of course essential, but not enough to provide meaning to a viewer, unless that viewer is willing to surrender to the artist’s self-regard.
The idea of the artist’s responsibility toward the viewer has changed dramatically in the last century.
The role of the artist prior to the 20th century was to be a servant more or less to their patron, whether an individual or an institution. There was a literal contractual arrangement between the two. Later the focus became what the artist felt and the patron could choose from what the artist made available.
If indeed there was a patron.
True. But I find too much insularity a hindrance to strong painting. On the one hand we have absolute service to a patron, like the old social realism of Soviet art, and on the other hand we have the extreme of Cy Twombly’s notes to himself. I believe an artist is a participant in a conversation with the public. That’s what I mean by generosity. An artist ought to step back and consider where and how they are leading an audience that will put their trust in them. I think James Joyce succeeded in Ulysses (1922) but completely overshot the mark in Finnegans Wake (1939). It’s a fantastic piece of work, but impossible to read, if the word “reading” still means anything.
So it’s important to you that people understand your work?
Well, no, if the question implies that there is a right and a wrong meaning to each painting. I’m simply trying to get back to a kind of painting that doesn’t need a written explanation — that doesn’t need a statement on the wall next to it. I want people to talk about my work. Understanding is up to them. I don’t like explaining. I think there’s more than enough room inside a rectangle to share the world with another person. I want painting to work in its simplest form.
Its simplest form?
A single rectangle is actually quite a rich invention. You set aside this geometric patch on the wall and it’s different from the rest of the wall; that’s complicated enough. It’s a kind of window but you’re aware also that it’s a surface.
I saw some of your earlier work and it was very painterly abstraction.
In art school I had been a strict Minimalist, but afterwards I threw myself into Abstract Expressionism because it just felt good to let go. During that process I found myself painting things I was thinking of, like trees and hills, and I decided why not just paint trees and hills? I was trying to get the light, and once you’re trying to get the light in abstract painting things can get a little too artificial, a little too cute, so I decided it would be better to go straight toward representational art. I initially brought a Minimalist sensibility to my paintings. I would have, say, a single tree in the middle of an empty landscape. They were not unlike the portraits, which are also pared down and somewhat minimal. I’d now like to introduce environments — like how I handled still life a few years ago, with a large swath of light coming through a window.
I didn’t start painting portraits until 2011 and I think doing so fits into the contemporary art world pretty well if you think of what’s going on in alternative spaces and commercial galleries. But in terms of the museums — the Whitney, the Modern, and the New Museum — my work is as foreign as you can get. They’ve gotten very narrow in their focus.
They’ve gotten away from painting altogether.
Yes. Like this crazy show up at MoMA right now — “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” — where they’ve built a review of contemporary painting on an irrational science fiction idea about time. It’s an appealing idea for them because they’re stuck in time. By insisting on promoting a very edgy avant-garde, the major museums have hit a brick wall. They don’t know what else to do. So they keep reiterating edgy ideas, like Oscar Murillo’s unstretched canvas on the floor of “Forever Now.” It’s got nothing to do with painting, it’s just another tired old reiteration of installation art. MoMA has had recent shows by painters like Ellsworth Kelly, Dorothea Rockburne, Sigmar Polke. But with “Forever Now,” they seem to be asserting an extremely narrow view of art, let alone painting.
Do you think the curators don’t understand or aren’t educated about painting?
Well, they’ve dismissed it… I think it has a lot to do with the university getting hard wired to the art world in a way that it hadn’t been before. In the 1940s Meyer Shapiro suggested to a young Robert Motherwell that he ought to leave Columbia in order to become a painter. Now to be an artist you first have to get an academic degree. The academic mindset has taken over much of the contemporary art world. Artists are taught their art has to exemplify accepted theories. You go through the wing of the Modern where they show work from the past 20 years and you find no color in anything; it’s mostly charts, wires, tubes and diagrams. They’ve lost interest in vision, color, nuance — in a word, painting.
I watch everything. I’m interested in everything, but as a critic I prefer to just write about painting. I think painting needs to be promoted. It’s a rich visual medium because it reminds us how perception is so fleeting. It cannot die. Neither can coherent writing, expressive dance, acting.
Yes, painting is dead, then it’s back, then it’s dead again. I’ve also heard of the idea of “de-skilling.”
It’s amazing isn’t it — people actually painting badly on purpose. Not for the old Freudian goal of reaching the unconscious, or striving for a culturally “primitive” look, but as a way of joining intent with novelty; coming up with something that looks new.
Yes, because apparently to be skilled is to basically be a hack.
Or to re-tread old ideas. To be fair, I think that’s how they genuinely feel about it. That’s why I purposely set out to teach myself to paint in a way that’s convincing and comparable to the portrait as it looked in the early 20th century — when painters were loosening up and experimenting, but had been trained in their craft.
I like making pictures, I like painting and I like looking at people, so what am I supposed to do with my life? I have to do something. I don’t think the portraits I’ve made so far are particularly groundbreaking, but they’re certainly competent, and from this point I’d like to see what I can do next. I want to see if I can make something of it without getting lost in preconceived ideas.
Or coming up with a gimmick of some sort.
If only Modern art were studied more carefully. All these gimmicks have been tried. The Abstract Expressionists were trying to reinvent painting from scratch. Newman was proud of his skill as a painter. The AbEx artists never saw themselves as de-skilling.
Nor did the Impressionists.
No, they just wanted to be truer to what they saw; to loosen up a little bit. What we need now is more cross-pollination. That’s why I think those who paint the way I do should be showing their work with those who consider themselves edgy. Because in its own way my work is edgy; the fact that it’s so not edgy makes it edgy.
Jeanne Wilkinson is a writer and artist living and working in New York. Her short story “In the End Was the Word: a (Dis)missive from God” will be published in April in Catch and Release, an online magazine by Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Arts. Her essays have been featured on The Leonard Lopate Show and on NPR’s Living on Earth. An exhibition of her recent artwork is on view at the Yonkers Art Gallery until the end of February.