2009 Exhibition Commentary
Julien Warren 2009
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.
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.
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.
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