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Untitled, 2008, oil on linen,167 x 167 cm
In The Real Art World interviews Michael Peck about his recent exhibition at Metro Gallery, Melbourne
In The Real Art World: What is the Michael peck story, how have you and your art arrived at this point?
Michael Peck:: I’ve always been making artworks since I was a kid. I grew up with pencils in my hand, I spray painted walls as a teenager and I discovered oil paint when I was eighteen. There never seemed to be an alternative to becoming an artist. When I completed my fine arts degree at Monash, I was picked up by Gallery 101 in Melbourne and people seemed to like what I did. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to travel a fair bit and produce commissioned work in London and New York. Along the way I got married and started a beautiful family. Now I’m exhibiting at Metro Gallery in Melbourne and soon will exhibit in Sydney at Dickerson. When I say it now it sounds like it’s been an easy journey, however, the truth is that it’s actually been very difficult.
In The Real Art World:The paintings in this latest exhibition are carefully constructed to create unease, a sense of foreboding. Imagery that is nostalgic, often of innocence overwhelmed, vulnerable and alone. How do you see the elements you use and what do you want to get across to the viewer?
Michael Peck:: Themes of isolation and displacement have continually reoccurred in my paintings over time. I am interested in issues regarding social and cultural change and the ways in which a constant state of flux leaves certain individuals on the fringe. I am not necessarily trying to convey a specific narrative to the viewer but rather provide imagery which will provoke a personal response. Ironically there is an abstract comfort in recognition of this shared isolation.
The Long Silence, 2008, oil on linen, 84 x 46 cm
In The Real Art World: You are not a prolific artist, what is your working and exhibiting ethos?
Michael Peck:: There seems to be a lot of pressure to produce more and more paintings in a year, but it is a pressure that I resist. It’s not that I couldn’t be prolific, rather that I choose not to. Each painting is important to me. They are each planned meticulously and labored for long periods of time. I always hope the outcome will result in something powerful and unique. I don’t want to compromise the strength of a single image by producing another 20 which are almost identically and systematically painted. I believe that for an exhibition of paintings to work successfully the artworks need to converse and complement one another but still individually hold their own.
In The Real Art World: How do you go about finding the subjects for your paintings?
Michael Peck:: I steal them! Well sort of. Nearly all of the imagery I use is appropriated and re-contextualised. I find images from old books, magazines, film stills, the internet and then pull them apart and reinterpret them. Many of the people I paint are composites and the scenes they exist in are made similarly. I’m very interested in the idea of constructed realities so I hope that my process reflects this.
Dorothy, 2009, oil on linen, 137 x 137 cm
In The Real Art World:Tell me about your working process, how an idea becomes a finished painting?
Michael Peck:: That’s a difficult question to answer because the process is always changing. However, if I was to break down my current practice I guess it would go something like this; Ideas often come in the middle of the night when I really want to sleep and I scribble them down in one of many sketchbooks. An idea will often sit in the sketchbook for months before being revisited when I finally stumble across the right images to address the task. My painting process always changes, however the basic approach is to paint from dark to light with a heavy opaque underpainting which blocks in the composition and conveys form. Then I apply thin washes of glaze to control the tone and pick up the texture when lit. Yet, in any painting I will often move backwards and forwards between thick impasto paint and glazing before the painting alludes to look finished.
In The Real Art World: Who are the artists that at the moment you are looking at, or find their work resonates for you?
Michael Peck:: Peter Paul Rubens, Mark Tansey, Shepard Fairey are some of the painters I have been looking at in the past couple of weeks. But my inspiration seems to be drawn from all over the place. At the moment I am loving the aesthetic of films by Gus Van Sant such as Elephant and Paranoid park. I love the way his films strip back the dialogue and build a sense of tension through a snail-paced speed; occasionally providing signposts that something profound and probably terrible is going to happen.
In The Real Art World: Finally, what's next?
Michael Peck:: Keep painting and hope for the best.
Reservation, 2009, oil on linen, 143 x 143 cm
In The Real Art World thanks Michael Peck and Dr. Julian Warren for allowing the exhibition catalogue essay to be republished here:
"Michael Peck's paintings are a constructed blend of nostalgic imagery from the 1950s, an age of innocence, blended with the sense of foreboding darkness that we tolerate as the condition of our post 9-11 contemporary society. He joins images of a multiculturalism that position us in a present space that is global, familiar, yet impossible to locate.
Whenever I am confronted by Michael Peck's paintings the word that best describes my reaction is shock but the vagaries of this hackneyed term places his paintings in the same league as the styles of art that predominated in the Twentieth Century that are contrived so blatantly to shock their viewer. This trend continues its evolutionary process with contemporary artists like the British artist Damien Hirst who have come to a public prominence that has emanated from the star system generated from the Turner Prize. The Turner Prize is a competition for contemporary artists publicized on prime time national British television that in the 1990s infused a languishing British art scene. The negative by-product of this publicity is that it birthed the assumption that to impact the mass public art must be increasingly shocking. Art has become equated with shock and the once already tragic notion of 'art for arts sake' has morphed into 'shock for shock sake'. Peck's highly considered approach to painting contrasts with the work that is now rewarded by this undiscerning plebian system. Peck's shock value relies on our society's loss of innocence, on our expectations of what life should be but isn't. We are confronted by our own denial, of a grief that we have laid dormant in order to cope with modern life.
Without Thought, 2008, oil on linen, 91 x 46 cm
I concede that Damien Hirst's formeldahyde shark holds currency in my life, albeit outside the boundaries that I use to define good art. Hirst's shocking shark has the craftsmanship that would be the envy of the world of taxidermy, and I am not simply alluding to the size of the job. Hirst sends a powerful, salient reminder of the foolhardiness of staying in the surf until dusk. It should be noted however that Hirst's shock value translates better to a shark infested country like Australia rather than his native Britain where one might conceivably suffer psychological scarring from the sucking of an overzealous gummy shark. It is a shame that I cannot take this sort of shocking art seriously and survive it only by reverting to humour. I wish I could keep this sense of humour when I contemplate Damien Hirst's diamond encrusted skull which is valued at 50 million pounds. Do we really need to be shocked by art about the excesses of an existential world when consumerism is in our face already?
What sets Michael Peck's art apart from this decadent art is that, as well as being shockingly confrontational, his paintings are simultaneously beautiful and profound. This body of work consists of monochromatic compositions of humanity executed with an intense realism reliant on a mastery of the depth of field. Each figure is placed in a context of a visual narrative that suggests a tension between our existential and our spiritual worldviews. This is the tension of surrealism where psychoanalytical connotations are endued from within the viewer's subconscious minds.The composition's intrinsic symbolism executed with superb craftsmanship elicits cognizance of subjective meanings that are sublime, ethereal and philosophical.
A recurrent symbol in this exhibition are birds; pigeons, that have a presence that is far from benign, they seem to weigh on the subjects like an ethereal burden, they are at once natural but unnatural. For me this juxta-positioning of images in Untitled 2008 denotes the sinister representation of natural phenomena coined by Hitchcock in The Birds but this association is no mere coincidence because Peck like the film director's Hitchcock and Weir [The Last Wave and Picnic at Hanging Rock] have purposefully manipulated the context of the everyday in order to create the profound.
Sound, 2009, oil on linen, 61 x 61 cm
Another of Peck's symbols is the solitary person journeying through a narrative space devoid of colour that seems timeless like a silent film. We cannot help but identify with these characters and to begin to imagine their story and to draw parallels with our own experience. The characters that inhabit these narratives are alienated from a sense of community, they are left to make sense of the lonely world they inhabit, with only their emotions to make sense of it. This is most evident in Composition 2008, a painting inspired by Goya's representation of the mythical Greek cyclops Polyphemus blinded by Odysseus and his men and is now fumbling in the dark to prevent their escape. This painting's theme is the quintessence of Peck's mission to illustrate our existential angst, we feel lost, overwhelmed, vulnerable and helplessly alone".
Dr. Julian Warren is an art educator and writer. Until recently he was a lecturer of Visual Culture at Somerset College of Art, and a Film Studies lecturer at Exeter University in the UK.