Peter Acheson, "Locating the Diamond" (1984), oil on wood, 15 x 12 inches (all images courtesy Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects)

When Peter Acheson makes art honoring A. R. Penck, Myron Stout, Joan Miró, Gandy Brodie, and others, he channels signature features of their work but transforms them into something all his own. When he draws in paint, the lines are often delicate arabesques that sit somewhere between ideogram and ornament. When he attaches different found objects, such as feathers and bones, to the surface of his work, viewers can sense his belief in art as both talisman and record keeper. When the surfaces are thick and crusty, he expresses his love for materiality, but does not fetishize it. Moving from image to abstract emblem to asemic writing to legible inscription, while working on canvas, panel, tarp, and canvas board, it is clear that Acheson is not precious about what he makes. All of these different, contradictory aspects make him difficult to characterize, and that resistance is one reason why I first wrote about him in 2005. 

His current exhibition, Peter Acheson: White Album at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (September 7–October 15, 2022), includes 17 artworks dated between 1984 and 2022. In an early work, “Locating the Diamond” (1984), Acheson’s process was to apply and scrape away green, turquoise blue, and greenish-yellow paint, so that the wood’s grainy surface and scraped-down paint become inseparable, and serve as a record of the painting’s coming into being — an oblique allusion to Harold Rosenberg’s essay “The American Action Painters” (1952). In this piece, painting becomes excavation. 

Peter Acheson, “Votive” (1994), oil on canvas, 7 x 9 inches

In “Votive” (1994), which measures 7 by 9 inches, yet seems bigger, on a smeary, pasty white ground Acheson has drawn three cursive, yellow-ocher lines, two of which curl around like flower petals, taking up most of the canvas. In the remaining space, he has added a vertical row of straight black lines that suggest mathematical signs. The juxtaposition is sharp and smart. Is the black configuration a sign and the yellow-ochre an ornament or abstract image? Is one evocative of language and the other of nature?

In “Votive 2 (for Myron Stout)” (2005), done more than a decade after “Votive,” a scrunched, brown-mustard, canoe-like shape floats on a dirty white ground faintly tinted with blue. As opposed to Stout, who often labored for years on his modestly scaled, black and white biomorphic abstractions, which allude to Greek mythology, Acheson offers the artist an imperfect object, which I take as a sign of humility.  

Through each decade the exhibition covers, Acheson produced interesting work while staying true to his desire to honor his heroes and declare his affection for anti-heroic work. In an age dominated by narcissism and material excess, his anti-heroic position should be something that we reflect upon.

Peter Acheson, “Votive 2 (for Myron Stout)” (2005), oil on canvas

Peter Acheson: The White Album continues at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects (208 Forsyth Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through October 15. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...

One reply on “Peter Acheson Trades Heroism for Humility”

  1. I like your generous and receptive critiques of diverse stylistic artists and the multiplicity of expression you support and even admire. It is quite a range.

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