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Peter Acheson, “Dedicated to Sigmar Polke” (2012), acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 48 x 40 inches (all images courtesy Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects)

This is an essay about communication and exchange between painters. It has to do with developing a shared language, and with exploring the nature and extent of our theoretical basis in painting.

The origin of what’s written here is a continuing conversation I’ve been having with the painter Peter Acheson over the course of the last few years. Acheson is currently exhibiting a collection of his paintings, recent and past, at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects.

Painting today is a backwater. Our reasons for appreciating it, if we do, are various and sometimes contradictory and contentious. When compared to the cinema, it has no firmly established place relative to society as a whole, which often leads to the sense among practitioners, particularly the young, that painting is really just about self-involvement, a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing. Few people outside the art world could name five prominent contemporary painters, much less comment on the value of their work.

The only apparent alternative is the market, in which sales and exhibitions are what signify importance. Then the question is not how to talk about painting, but how to market it. It then becomes easy to forgo criticism altogether. In their press releases, galleries print their own analysis of what they exhibit. In response, critics and artists often shy away from value judgments in favor of descriptive writing. In a pluralistic culture nothing is more gauche than being strictly opinionated. This is what’s commonly referred to as “the crisis in criticism.”

The problem is located nowhere in particular but everywhere generally. Those who are high on the hog don’t wanna talk about it because why rock the boat, and those who are on bottom don’t wanna talk about it either because why be reactionary?

My contention is that the problem is the paradigm; and I want painting to heal its own wounds by redefining and expanding its context and by broadening its field of activity. This can happen both through practice ¾ painters working as painters in their studios ¾ and (emphasis here) by communicating. By talking about what we do. Talking anywhere ¾ the classroom, the studio, the street, the Internet. This is why talking’s important, uncomfortable as it may be. It’s education. So this is one painter’s ode to the possibility of a greater union between paint and language and a testimony to what’s gained by exploring it.

What follows is a hybrid form. A question is followed by a response from Acheson in italics then my comment. It is meant as a tribute to a specific exchange, and to the idea of exchange between artists as a means of generating change in the language surrounding painting.

Acheson’s work demonstrates a relationship between theory and practice that is an alternative to the contemporary paradigm. In his paintings, he concentrates on image and its reverberations as a means of undoing ingrained dichotomies in our language. A single painting is never strictly abstract or representational. Language itself is paired with collaged objects and paint, each meant as an equivalency for the others.

By eliminating thought barriers to painting activity, Acheson’s work creates a new inroad into painting. My conversations with him have helped clarify my own objectives and helped me recognize that still other paths may be blazed: that in fact, our history is not over. Or if it is, so much the better because we can now operate without the constant imposition of history’s twisted sibling: ideology.

Our new subject could be consciousness itself as it evolves and changes from hour to hour, day to day, and century to century. This passive, speculative attitude is not entirely new (Corot said: “It is not necessary to search, only to wait”). But its romantic, Watteau-like origins are the antidote to contemporary Apollonian methods and apathy alike.

In Acheson’s paintings, the movement of one brushstroke into the next is never a matter of finishing a painting, or of competing with an ideal, or of abjection in the absence of possibility. It is simply about seeing what will occur next, in the next moment.  His paintings and our evolving conversation have helped shape and reinforce my own sense of possibility. I believe in exchange of this nature as a catalyst for change even in the direst of circumstances.  Acheson is fond of quoting James Hillman’s question: “If we are on the Titanic and the ship is going down and everybody know it, is it worth it to rearrange the deck furniture?” Our answer:

1. Is there an operating theory of painting today?

No, not a universal theory. But there are theories from other disciplines that bear on painting. The big one for me is the idea from archetypal psychology of the anima mundi. As James Hillman points out, “The question in contemporary psychology is not what is the subject, but where is it? Does it stop inside my skin, or in my human relationships, or does it extend out to the rocks and trees?” Paintings become real for me not when they express my feelings only, but when the voice in them comes from out there. If the voice out there can come through a painting, then it can be heard in all sorts of other ‘inanimate things’. This would imply a dismantling of our human-centric point of view and suggest that we are but one of many players on the stage of consciousness. And the amazing thing is that paintings can arrive at this place. Here, as the intention-driven mind is downplayed, the external mind can flow in, either as unconscious (to us) coincidence or as a beautiful moving together of parts¾ like seeing a fox in the woods when one is quiet.

Peter Acheson, “Goddess” (2010), acrylic on foil on canvas, 11.25 x 8 inches

I am here liberated from the sense that I must do something in order to make my paintings meaningful. It concretizes the idea that one’s paintings are intrinsically already something, which is all the more important for their uniqueness. If you can get your mind around this, then your paintings can start to teach you about what you are. They become animated in the sense of animism. Individuated teaching forms: the opposite of merchandise.

2. In terms of your experience as a painter, where do paintings come from?

Paintings come from the unknown. Can we know exactly what the painting will look like before it confronts us? The proof is revealed by the fact that ‘finished’ paintings often fall off and require more work after we think of them as done. “We” cannot know. Successful paintings continue to mystify precisely because we can’t control the outcome, no matter how deliberate the method.

The teaching forms tell us that we are not in control. If this generates discomfort, good. That means there is no navel gazing going on at all. And if there is no final control in the production of paintings (any more than there is the course of life), then paintings can’t very well be considered as reliable products for consumption. No one is ever going to know what they’ve got.

Peter Acheson, “KB” (2010), oil with conch on canvas, 10 x 8 inches

3. Has the field of painting been professionalized? A professional artist. Is that an oxymoron?

Painters can be professional in the same way that shamans and psychotherapists are professional. Painting is an art, not a science. Science isn’t even a science as we usually understand the word. Painters are the worker-priests in the cult of man (Brice Marden). We roam the graveyards. We examine the old technologies and myths to see what still applies (Gary Snyder). This process doesn’t aim at meaning but participation. Painting as a profession which can be taught in art schools implies Apollo, skillful problem solving, the clear light of understanding. Rather than understand, painters choose to stand under. Painting is a performance art, more Dionysian than Apollonian. True to our professional obligations, we aim at dismantling ‘professional,’ turning it towards ‘professing’ joy, contrariness, and replacing ‘squirrel-in-cage’ thinking with consciousness in the fingertips.  

In terms of the ‘contemporary dialogue,’ or ‘being contemporary,’ this is a radical redefinition of professionalism. Comparing a painter to a shaman and equating the act of painting with performance simultaneously elevates the practice to a critical function vis-à-vis our fellow humans and frees us from the shackles of pure materiality. A shaman operates on the material world via a transcendent plain. So when we look at paintings or when we make paintings we are dealing with psychology and with health. And that leads to reconsidering why and how a painting gets made. Painting practice suddenly integrates itself into life on a par with everyday functions, and ‘participation’ in this becomes critical. And if it might serve a healing function then we are happy that it exists. Whether you made it or whether I did becomes unimportant.

Peter Acheson, “Reemerging Spiral” (2012), oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches

4. In relationship to that, is studio practice separable from a painter’s life? Are the life and the painting different?

Different in that one reflects the other. Sometimes life leads, sometimes painting. But it is impossible and fruitless to separate the ochres and cadmiums from the entire mineral composition of the earth; pointless to distinguish the water in the watercolor from the streams, rivers, and rain — all part of the planetary water cycle. We say the painting is finished, but how can anything be finished in an unfinished universe? We have the fantasy that the art in museums is immune from the wear and tear of time, and this leads to the idea that painting is separate from life. But a look at the lives of Pollock, Rembrandt, and Guston, just to name three, refutes this fantasy. Complacency in life leads to complacency in painting. In times when money obligations curtail my studio time, I tell myself that it is PAINTING that walks into Dunkin Donuts for coffee, PAINTING that puts gas in the car, fills the farecard. It seems to be enough.

Peter Acheson, “Slow Rain” (2012), acrylic with foil on canvas, 24 x 18 inches

Peter Acheson: Paintings continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through May 26.

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Ben La Rocco

Ben La Rocco is a painter living in Brooklyn.

13 replies on “Artist Exchange: In Conversation with Peter Acheson”

  1. Communication and the quality of communication are different
    planets. There is too much emphasis on communication and not enough on
    understanding the quality of the message and the clarity on how best to
    communicate that message…i.e. fog.

    Differentiate between the art market and making art… those
    in confusion are ones that call themselves painters but opt out towards the
    digitalization aesthetic, confusing images with paintings. Painting is
    analogue… it is material as well materials and it is glaringly imperfect… uncornered.

    Critics role in painting as well as gallerists are to
    promote art/ selling art Gallerists and Artists/ Artists ultimate role is to
    create art…. I would venture to guess that most Artists spend ¾ of their time
    Promoting art and ¼ of their time making art…. I find this holds true across
    the board. Promotion on every bit of the social media bandwagon as well as by
    showing up socializing has garnered many average talents a handsome payday and
    many critics feed this trough as do of course the galleries….Sensations and
    sensationalism coupled with ‘thin’ creations(artworks) lacking message and depth,
    are greatly and constantly rewarded by critics, by gallerists, by collectors and by people that confuse
    fine art, paintings with commodities, such as pig bellies.

    re: ‘operating without history’s twisted sibling: ideology’

    Differentiate between ‘idealogy’ and the painters statement
    of a different reality or layered understandings of reality.

    re: ‘the idea that one’s paintings are intrinsically already
    something’

    Yes exactly. This is the real dialogue…the dialogue between
    the artist and the painting. The Artist’s responsibility is to offer an entry
    point for the viewer inside of this dialogue and this painting…

    Myself and most painters that I know are not painting to fit
    ourselves within art history. We are in this dialogue, which is vital. This is
    senior to and should not be cheapened by glorified versions of self-expression
    or self -involvement.

    1. I think you misunderstand criticism. Our role is not “promote art/ selling art” though some may choose to do that, but to write about things that inspire or challenge us. The fantasy of artists tends to be that we help them promote and sell their art. As critics we are in dialogue with art of all types (just as artists are).

      1. You are absolutely right. A critics role is not to promote art … and I did not clearly state it but I meant that selling art is to the galleries and the artist.
        While that is not the critics role…that is the role the majority of critics do often under the guise of being inspired or challenged.

        Perhaps if nothing is stated by the artists then it is up to the critics to fill that gap with some smart writing …stretching us into their universe….

  2. This is tremendous… I feel like my mind has been touching on these thoughts for a long time now, but this really clarifies and reaffirms things, thank you! I am a painter and I work with images (landscapes, still life) so this idea of anima mundi is pretty compelling. I’ve been thinking about the physicality of space and how it is defined by objects within it, but the notion of consciousness existing outside of the mind is definitely worth some research. Thank you also for demonstrating this ‘communication’. It has a nice form and this particular dialogue is very earnest, which is reassuring to painters like me. Will this be a series of “Artist Exchanges”??? All the best! -Jon

  3. I have never thought of the market (in the art world) as something driven entirely by money. In fact, I don’t think it is even driven partially by money when signing new artists to important galleries. The fact is, gallery owners and curators have to choose good art or they are out of a job. If they try to choose what sells then they are out of a job also. It isn’t like fashion. You need to be able to recognize work that is current and important. Work that is of the present and also something new, and a whole bunch of other stuff. It is much more complicated than trying to pinpoint what will sell like trend forecasting or something.

    Worrying about the market never gets people anywhere. Making good work and working hard actually does pay off.

    By the way these paintings suck.

    1. Unfortunately, I think the art world is absolutely driven by money. I used to work at a gallery and saw collectors buying as investment all the time. It’s also why galleries went from only showing older artists to constantly raiding the grad schools and show not-yet-graduated artists in the hope of developing the next “art star,” whose prices will go up as they gain a reputation. All one has to do is read about contemporary auctions to see that it’s about the dollar (or 40 million dollars). Compared to the stock market, the art market is seen as a much safer place to invest by the very rich.

      1. It is, of course, entirely driven by money. They aren’t making more Picassos or whatever. It is a sound investment if you buy smart. However, people seem to think that gallery owners often lower the bar to make money. This is simply wrong. For example, finding underdeveloped “not-yet-graduated artists” implies that what they do is either some ruse or something similar to Spice Girls management. These “not-yet-graduated artists” have been through 5 or 6 years of school when they are “raided”. If they aren’t ready for a gallery by then, then something is wrong.

        My point was that successful gallery owners look to spot talent, or drive, or an interesting personality, or whatever they think is there in the artist that is special. They don’t create it or grow it, like a Spice Girl to make money. And don’t forget that the vast majority of artists signed to important galleries never make it and are quickly dropped. What art sellers do is money driven, but it isn’t a scam.

        Finally, galleries DO NOT constantly raid grad schools. This myth continues because people think it is perverse and ridiculous somehow. Galleries raid very few schools in the USA, and what they do could hardly be called “raiding”. They actually aren’t allowed in most schools, and they are only interested in a few (mostly around NYC).

  4. Is Painting to remain nailed to a material framework? Or, can it be (once again) redefined and thereby expanded to include marks of light on an electronic screen? If we agree that painting comes from a dematerialized place, then it is also painting when it remains in such a state. There is reason to believe that painting “has left the building” and is flourishing out there with no price on its head doing what it has always done to define and mediate current experience and thought. Painting does not die it only gets struck, from time to time, gazing at itself in its own mirror. Perhaps it is the Art Market that is dying this time (certainly to a majority of people it is inaccessible). If Painting is an activity shared simultaneously across the globe by its practitioners then what is the need for a Market at all? I guess it is a question of how far is the critic/theorist/philosopher willing to go to resurrect Painting?

  5. very interesting…I like this Idea of a shamanic jungian theory of painting as self teacher and healer…not unlike Beuys really..however it is still important to talk about what is happening in the actual thing itself (each object or painting or whatever) using language to talk specifically about what we can.. so that we can go further in practice into that area where language falls away. I like the idea behind the work but I dont think that All paintings are meant to be seen by all people..some are useful in different areas. I think any overarching theory of painting needs to be examined thoroughly..mainly by the artist employing it.

  6. “Few people outside the art world could name five prominent contemporary painters, much less comment on the value of their work.”

    I think you could probably replace “painters” with “artists” and still be pretty accurate.

    1. In 20 years you will say the same thing but everyone will know todays painters. It’s always been like that. It isn’t that people changed and are suddenly lazy.

      1. I am tuning in and commenting egregiously late here – probably terminally late by internet standards. But I figured it would be hypocritical of me to create an exchange and fail completely to respond to your many thoughtful comments. So here goes. I think the whole market dimension of my text turned out to be a bit of a red herring. Whether or not you believe that the marked controls much of what gets said and done in the art world wasn’t really what I was trying to get at. My essential concern in writing is what I sense as a general malaise among young artists (myself included) and among younger artists still (students) in relationship to the art world at large and a sense of being either forced to conform or be excluded. I was wondering: is it possible to rebuild the foundations of our conversation in such a way that people – particularly the young, those starting out – could begin to feel more connected to what they’re hearing and seeing. Are our foci what they could be? If you do not share my sense of an insidious apathy at work on us, then my comments are likely to fall on deaf ears. But if you do…. I happen to feel that the market is like air now – it’s all around you all the time to the extent that no one ever considers it for its own sake. I also think that it is effecting the work that gets made, though I would hardly place blame with gallerists. Many artists themselves – again, particularly the young- seem to see success in the market as the only viable proof that one is making something of oneself as an artist. That thinking is hard to avoid. I’ve thought it myself and I’m not placing blame. My thought, though, is that if you could start to change the language of art – how we talk about it, what we say, the tenor of our voices, how we listen – then you could begin to change consciousness from the inside out and artists could more easily re-situate themselves relative to the market, the contemporary scene – which is only a manifestation of desire anyway. What if it were possible to live this all out differently rather than simply accepting what is presented to us as fact?

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