Some artists need to be gurus, always insisting on their elevated place in the hierarchy, while others are happy if younger artists look up to them, content to have companions on their solitary journey. Peter Acheson belongs to the latter group, which is one of the reasons why his current exhibition, Rusted Giacometti, is taking place at NOVELLA (October 13–November 17, 2013), the latest addition to the still-expanding, Lower East Side gallery scene.
Steve Rivera, a recent graduate of Hunter College’s MFA program, started NOVELLA, which is a long, narrow, basement space beneath a tailor shop on Orchard Street. Originally, this artist-run gallery was supposed to open in fall 2012, but that was cancelled because of Hurricane Sandy. It seems to me that the Acheson exhibition, which was co-curated by the artist and JJ Manford, another recent Hunter MFA graduate, is the perfect way for Rivera to declare what his gallery is about, which is, in a very real sense, a leap into the void.
It seems to me that Rivera and NOVELLA possess the same optimistic, enterprising spirit as small poetry presses such as Ugly Duckling Presse, Song Cave and Octopus Books, all of which were started by poets intent on recovering neglected writers as much as launching young ones.
If it weren’t for the portable white column set out on the street with the gallery’s name neatly printed on it, I might have missed the entrance altogether. The only way to enter the gallery is to descend a narrow staircase into a well-lit, barebones basement space. It made perfect sense to me that Acheson, an underground artist admired by a growing number of younger painters, would have an exhibition of more than sixty works, selected from the past thirty plus years, displayed salon-style on a basement’s pristine white walls, just below a street festival full of people standing around eating pickles on sticks. And, contrary to what you might expect, the paintings, many of which are less than 10 x 8 inches, had a lot of room.
During the late 1970s and into 1980s, Acheson lived in Brooklyn. His circle of friends included Chris Martin, Katherine Bradford and Rick Briggs. Acheson and Martin met in kindergarten and began seriously talking about art in 1972, when they were undergraduates at Yale.
This cohort of aspiring painters admired artist-loners such as Forrest Bess, Myron Stout and Alfred Jensen. They also looked up to two Brooklyn residents: James C. Harrison, who had his first one-person show at 58, and Bill Jensen.
In contrast to the others, all of whom developed an identifiable set of motifs, Acheson eventually rejected the idea of narrowing down, choosing instead to remain open to the work of others and to even cite them in his work. These artists would include Henri Michaux, Raoul DeKeyser, A.R. Penck, Eva Hesse, and Piet Mondrian — an unlikely gathering.
The second way in which Acheson parted company from his friends is conveyed in his view of painting’s material status. For him, a painting begins as a damaged object rather than a pristine surface on which to apply paint. And if, as a damaged object, it appears to have survived years of turbulence, abuse and neglect, becoming deformed and ragged in the process, Acheson isn’t about to gussy it up and make it presentable. He doesn’t want to accommodate himself to the viewers’ expectations of a painting, nor does he want to make a provisional painting, which all too often comes across as a calculated and cynical gesture, Dada-Lite.
In service to his unsettling, contrarian understanding, Acheson paints on pieces of scrap wood, bark, burlap, canvas, glass, bones and sponges. He uses oil, acrylic, spray paint and watercolor, with bits of aluminum foil, irregular blocks of wood, shells and bones often attached to his encrusted surfaces. This crudeness is what distinguishes his work from those who have absorbed a kind of cultivated neo-primitivism into their work. More importantly, Acheson’s works aren’t paintings, and it is a mistake to think they are. They are battered talismans, letters (here he shares something with Cy Twombly), declarations (or manifestoes) and odes. It seems that as he moved farther away from his beginnings, Acheson staked everything on the possibility of aesthetic atavism, in which all the lessons learned could be forgotten and one could start over with a clean slate, which is a very different, less trodden path from the one taken by those who claim to be the heir of Willem de Kooning or Albert Pinkham Ryder.
The breadth of the works in the exhibition– both materially and stylistically — is striking. When Acheson needed to articulate how he felt about A.R. Penck, he literally became the German artist in a large painting, “A.R. Penck” (2012), upon which he wrote a sympathetic interpretation of Penck’s aesthetics: “He considered himself an absolute REALIST … Abstraction = absolute REALISM.” Miraculously, even though the writing and composition evoke Penck’s graphic sign paintings of the 1970s, only Acheson could have made this work. And, diagonally across from “A.R.Penck,” is Acheson’s “Michaux” (2007), which was done in oil on burlap. In this painting, Acheson flawlessly channels the Belgian poet-artist’s vision of disintegration, which was inspired by his experiments with mescaline. However, the key difference is Acheson’s use of materials. Whereas Michaux usually worked in ink on paper, Acheson applied oil paint to burlap’s coarse, porous surface. His vision is married to the materials.
There was a period in the 1980s when artists following the academic dictum that the author and originality were dead — elected to make flawless copies of preexisting art works. Acheson and his friends took a different track and largely flew under the radar when they were not out-and-out ignored. More than a quarter century later, Acheson has returned to this endgame strategy with a new, non-ironic take. He makes a perfect copy that isn’t a copy at all; it’s both an ode and a rebirth.
In his work, Acheson constructs a community of artists, living and dead, friends and figures he admires but doesn’t necessarily know. He names works after and for Michaux, Eva Hesse, Mondrian, Edvard Munch, Samuel Beckett, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Ben La Rocco, and Olson (evoking both his friend and painter Craig and the poet Charles). By aggressively rejecting the desires of the universal audience (or general public) and the specialized audience, which is always up on the latest theory, Acheson seems to understand something that various innovative poets, particularly those connected to the New York School, have known for a long time: the community inherent in a limited audience. Frank O’Hara’s audience consisted largely of those he named in his poems, his “coterie” as it has been called. Charles Olson wrote about the “polis.” And Robert Creeley referred to his friends as “company.”
While many in the art world believe — at least financially speaking — that the best audience consists of the right blend of curators, collectors, critics and some portion of the museum and gallery going public (and strategically pitch their work towards the various powers-to-be), Acheson makes work for his “company.” This is why younger artists are drawn to his art. In a media-savvy world that believes a limited audience is to ridicule if it exists at all — as anyone who reads comments on poetry and accessibility in the New York Times would know — Acheson has refused the invitation to act dumb or turn himself into a puppet for the art world’s institutions.
Peter Acheson’s Rusted Giacometti continues at NOVELLA (164 Orchard Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through November 17