Peter Acheson does not want to be endearing or heroic. His modest-sized paintings are funky, matter-of-fact, tender, damaged, delicate, and crude. Often, he attaches blocks and pieces of splintered wood, strips of canvas, and other ungainly materials to the surface. He uses oil and acrylic. His paintings are recognizable but I would not say that he has a style. None of what he does seems to be in the service of beauty or refinement, all of which he is capable of, as manifest in the work he showed in 2005, more than a decade ago. If the phrase, “Look what the cat dragged in,” comes to mind, as it did when I was walking around the exhibition Peter Acheson: Paintings at Brennan & Griffin, the artist’s first show with this stalwart Lower East Side gallery, I think Acheson might counter with, “Yes, but then he dragged it back out.”
Instead of thinking of Acheson’s works as paintings, I have come to think of them as battered talismans, unfinished letters, and broken odes to his heroes, many of whom are artists. Since I first wrote about him in 2005, one of the things that I have found interesting to watch is his struggle to undermine his own tendency towards subtle brushstrokes, pictographic signs, and feathery surfaces. Instead a surface on which to deposit these marks, as they once were, the painting now merges the found with the made, acknowledging that it is an injured thing. However, instead of slashing or damaging his works, as artists from Lucio Fontana to Steve Parrino have done, Acheson seems to let the work lie around the studio or yard: he works incrementally, adding paint and collage to the surface. He is trying to challenge his own aesthetic sensibility without parodying himself: it cannot be an easy place to inhabit.
In 2013, in his previous New York show, which was held at the fledgling gallery Novella, two paintings stood out: “Michaux” (2007) and “A. R. Penck” (2012). In “Michaux,” Acheson was able to channel the poet-artist’s vision of material disintegration, inspired by Michaux’s experiments with mescaline, onto a coarse burlap surface, something that Michaux would never paint or draw on, while in “A. R. Penck,” he mimicked the German artist’s graphic sign paintings, but in English. In Brennan & Griffin’s thoughtfully curated exhibition, Acheson’s ability to channel other artists, to lose and find his identity in their work, was most notable in “Untitled (Thornton Dial)” (2012), which evoked the use-everything-including-the-kitchen sink works of Dial, a self-taught Black artist from Alabama. This desire to use everything speaks to Acheson’s desire to engage painting with everyday life, which includes the guiding spirits one brings into the studio.
When Acheson writes “Eva Hesse” and the number “62” in orange over a largely deep purple painting of thinly applied brushstrokes, he is acknowledging that whatever else happened in this layered painting, Hesse was on his mind. Instead of trying to get rid of the many artists keeping him company in his studio, he welcomes as well as memorializes them. Acheson may not want to be endearing, but he cannot help but become appealing in these paintings. Their modest scale saves them from turning into overblown, self-serving statements, nor is there anything. stylish about them. When he writes “Blinky Palermo” in white paint on a scrap of wood and affixes it to the front of a moody abstract painting, the browns and the dark and pale greens obliquely evoke the German artist.
What is different about this exhibition is that Acheson is making paintings that seem to have little to do with what is going on today’s art world. In “Untitled” (2015), much of this horizontal, paint-encrusted work is composed of deep brown interrupted by smears of yellow and white. Was the artist applying paint or wiping off his brush on its wet surface? Does it matter? Above the dark brown, he has painted the upper third of the composition grayish-white — the color of a blizzard. The surface is uneven (as it is in the lower part), both thin and encrusted. On top of the grayish-white band and an overlaid white canvas strip, Acheson has painted the outline of five mushroom-like forms whose stems reach down into the encrusted brown below. Finally, he has affixed a strip of wood covered with patches of brown and yellow that starts at the bottom edge near the right-hand corner and rises to the middle of the top edge.
The painting is a landscape, where the view is low to the ground and, like a diagram you see in an earth science book, includes what lies beneath the surface. Acheson’s recurring use of browns, greens, yellows, and different intensities of orange in all of the paintings in this exhibition suggests that the subject is the earth (or ground) from we emerge (like the mushrooms).
By calling out to different artists by name, Acheson is acknowledging his own roots. One could say that he is rejecting the modernist paradigm of originality. His use of degraded materials suggests that, like the poets he admires — Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan — he thinks of painting (or in their case, poetry) as a process rather than a product. This is Acheson’s argument with painting: it is too often a product made for commerce.
Acheson’s process is straightforward: he begins by adding one layer of paint or collage after another, a procedure that is in no way methodical. The next layer of paint may be thick or thin or, in many cases, both. Ghosts of earlier layers often peek through. Each feels inchoate, which I think is what Acheson is trying to immerse himself in — that place of yearning that never quite spells itself out. At some point, the process might end with someone’s name being written across the surface, but in this exhibition many of the works are unchristened.
A name organizes what came before it, which Acheson does not do in every work. When the painting evokes the earth, I am reminded of the opening line of Duncan’s great poem, “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow:”
as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,
that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein
that is a made place, created by light
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.
The arabesques and other abstract signs that you see on Acheson’s uneven surfaces are the “shadows that are forms” that have fallen there.
Peter Acheson: Paintings continues at Brennan & Griffin (122 Norfolk Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through April 2.