'Sanctuary' By Maggie Watson, 2014.

‘Come to the woods, for here is rest’ John Muir

A creator of quietly contemplative works, Michael Peck’s tranquil and atmospheric landscapes offer an enchanting escape for the viewer. There is a timeless quality to Peck’s work. In the finely detailed rendering of human figures, delicate birds, running streams, secluded woodlands and soaring mountains, the viewer feels that time has frozen, forever captured in this fleeting moment. It is this sense of suspension in Peck’s art, of balance between the real and not real, that is so captivating. We are bewitched and drawn into the fantasy landscapes Peck has created.

In his 2014 exhibition, Sanctuary, Peck explores the relationship between the self and place. More specifically, this series of paintings is a comment on the holistic and sympathetic role of nature and place in shaping the human spirit.

In the development of some of our greatest creative minds bustling cities, centres of modernity and the avant-garde, have been credited as the primary source of artistic inspiration. The French Impressionists celebrated their modern city of Paris with depictions of flâneurs strolling along the new wide boulevards, drinking in cafes and bars. The British Vorticists and Italian Futurists revelled in the technological advancements of the machine age. Industry, progress and cities humming with a throng of people and traffic inspired the likes of Wyndham Lewis and Mario Sironi. But nature and retreat into a place of personal sanctuary has been equally significant. Throughout history and across cultures, artists, poets, philosophers and writers have been drawn to nature, and there found an abode which, disconnected from worldly concerns, unleashed for them new and critical creative forces. The You-Yangs, a range of granite ridges South-West of Melbourne, were the source of a meditative series of landscapes by Fred Williams. Similarly the lake district of England was for William Wordsworth a place where he found solace and inspiration for his poetry. For Paul Gaugin, it was French Polynesia, a primitive haven far removed from cosmopolitan Paris, whose colours, light and people resulted in some of his most well known work.

Like these artists, Peck finds solace and creative inspiration in the natural world. Retreating into the wilderness of Baw Baw national park, beyond the reach of mobile phones and wifi, he finds a simplicity of existence which gives peace to a mind run ragged by the frenetic pace of modern life. This notion of sanctuary is a personalised one. As Peck observes, ‘We all have these places. For some it is the home, for others, the ocean, a farm or desert. In most cases, it is an appeal for the opposite that attracts us towards these places. We long for environments and experiences that allow for us to be transported from our worries and to gain perspective.’

For many years Peck has been drawn to the dialogue that exists between humans and their environment. However, Sanctuary marks a slight shift in this exploration. In Peck’s 2013 show, Love and Fear nature was a place to forage and to hunt. There was a vaguely fugitive sense to the ways in which the figures interacted with the landscape. By contrast, the landscapes of Sanctuary are purely peaceful and meditative. There is no undercurrent of tension or vulnerability. These paintings represent havens.

Sanctuary also features fewer human figures. Whereas previously the viewer has been intrigued by the ambiguous relationship and narrative between Peck’s figures and their environments, the emphasis has now shifted to invite a more personal response and reaction from the viewer to these meditative images and landscapes. As if to highlight this, Peck’s figures in Sanctuary do not appear to be physically grounded in the landscapes, rather they are like floating entities that coexist with it. Like pantheistic creatures, they imbue the works with a subtle spirituality.

Peck’s treatment of the figure within the landscape in Sanctuary has resonance for the landscapes themselves. They appear as meditations on a landscape rather than as tangible realties. The dramatic auroras and swathes of mist render these landscapes as something from a dream, a half-remembered world to which one returns, a sanctuary for the mind.

The dreamlike nature of these paintings is further enhanced by the presence of birds. Their fragile frames and wings are exquisitely captured mid-flight by Peck’s delicate brushwork. Throughout mythology and in religious iconography, birds are referred to as messengers of the gods. Their ability to inhabit the realms of earth and sky is mirrored in their flitting between the realms of the real and fantastical. In this way, the birds in Sanctuary, which are recognisably real, act as intermediaries between the dream like landscapes and the spectral bodies that occupy them. The birds transport the viewer into these landscapes so that we feel we can hear their fluttering wings, the music of a running creak bed, a breeze sighing through the foliage. The viewer is transfixed, for fear of disturbing the tranquillity of the scene.

In Sanctuary Peck has continued with his style of a monochromatic colour palette. In previous exhibitions we have seen the artist working in sepia, vermillion and black and white. In Sanctuary, Peck renders his landscapes, figures and birds in tones of undulating blue and white. They are redolent of beautifully fragile pieces of blue and white porcelain. In colour theory and psychology it has been observed that blue hues evoke a sense of calm and security, reduce stress and also inspire creativity and self-expression. Peck’s use of this colour scheme subtly reinforces the themes explored in this exhibition. The viewer is not distracted by vivid colour and dramatic juxtapositions of light and shade. Instead a holistic sensibility is evoked by this monochromatic approach.

For Peck, ‘these paintings seek to portray a connection with places of beauty and retreat. They aim to capture the moments that we yearn for; moments of peace, understanding and clarity. Even if these moments are fleeting they become even more precious because of their rarity.’ Sanctuary offers viewers an opportunity to contemplate their own visual haven, wherever it may be, and in doing so reminds us that we might, in this material world, reconsider the connection between meditative art and solace for the soul.