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Jim Peters retrospective opens at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum
Whose Dream is this.

PROVINCETOWN, MASS.- Jim Peters was born in Syracuse, NY in 1945. While still in high school he considered studying architecture, but, enticed by a full scholarship, he attended the United States Naval Academy, where he studied atomic physics. After graduation he received an Atomic Energy Commission Fellowship and enrolled in graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from which he received an MS in Nuclear Engineering in 1969. Newly married, with an infant daughter, he began teaching himself to paint. His subject was the detritus of young married life in the New England of the day: baby booties, rattles, lighthouses, and such. On a tour of duty aboard the USS John F. Kennedy, in a makeshift studio in a lower compartment that handled the ship’s cooling system, Peters began painting images from memory and from girlie magazines of the type circulating on 1970s naval vessels. Following his discharge from the Navy, hoping to use the G.I. Bill to study painting more methodically, he applied to the Maryland Institute College of Art, which accepted him directly into its MFA program rather than its undergraduate program, where he studied under Sal Scarpitta, Raoul Middleman, and Jon Friedman. As a result, he never took a class in drawing or formally studied color theory. What he knows about the practice of painting he learned entirely at work in his studio.

In 1977 after receiving his MFA degree, Peters moved to Uncasville, CT, and for two years was part of President Carter’s Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) Program, painting public murals in Norwich and Montville, CT. He began showing work sporadically in Mystic, New London, and Norwich. From 1982 to 1984 he was a Fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and subsequently Chair of its Visual Arts Committee for 19 years. His first real exhibition, though, was at the Guggenheim Museum in 1985, under the aegis of the Exxon Invitational, a biannual event hosted by the Museum to showcase emerging young artists. Sixteen of Peters’s works were exhibited, one of which was acquired by the Museum. At this time he started his 18 year representation with CDS (Clara Diament Sujo) Gallery in New York and later with several galleries in Provincetown and Boston. Peters’s lived and worked in Provincetown and Truro from 1982 to 2008 (with the exception of a four year experiment in upstate New York in Middlefield, near Cherry Valley). On leaving Truro, he settled in the Providence area until he and his wife, artist and writer Kathline Carr, moved to North Adams, MA in late 2012. Peters teaches at Rhode Island School of Design and Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

Among the significant contemporary artists depicting the human figure, by which we mean bringing something newly meaningful to an enterprise that is as old as humanity, Peters is almost alone in portraying his subjects without appreciable stylization, or deformation. He’s not trying to find a new way of portraying people, or to put his own mark on them, or to create a new artistic brand. He is interested in what has always been interesting to human beings: the discovery and the revelation of who they are; that most difficult and most sought-after virtue: knowing themselves. And to accomplish this nowadays in a visual tradition widely considered exhausted, or for that matter in any visual mode, given the plethora of images in which the world is awash, and even to create controversy and discomfort using such ostensibly direct and straightforward figural representation, is a remarkable feat indeed.

Peters’s work falls into three basic periods: an apprenticeship (1974-1982) in which the artist is searching for a perspective on his theme, a mature body of work (1983-2007) in which the same subjects recur repeatedly in a variety of dispositions and environments, as if the artist is surveying the scope of their emotional life, and the most recent body of work (2008-present), produced subsequent to the artist’s divorce and remarriage, in which Peters extends and transforms some of the basic themes and approaches of the previous mature work.

The early work is characterized by manifest overtones of anxiety, both in the appearance of its subjects and in the often complicated scenarios in which they are depicted almost as prisoners or victims, though sometimes also as lost angels, and generally tending toward allegory.

Peters’s extant mature opus, which is artificially compressed by the fact that he compulsively eradicates and paints over works that do not satisfy the demands of his art, is devoted almost exclusively to the repeated depiction of the female figure, with an occasional male companion, mainly in small cramped interior spaces that are claustral, dark, hard, and dingy. They have become the way they are through a long process of private activity, neglect, entropy, of life idiosyncratically lived, of an unconcern with what might be going on in other domiciles nearby or how life is being lived there. There is a kind of squalor to them, the squalor of the life of artists, whose fundamental indifference to everything but their passion is evident in the antiquity of the cheap, almost caricature- or Guston-like appliances scattered here and there among the pictures, the spare furnishings and unwholesome mattresses, jerry-rigged antennas and bare light bulbs, and pictures tacked to chipped and peeling walls onto which their occupants have had no qualms about writing or painting directly if the need or whim arose. These are lives that take place orthogonally to the life of the viewer and to the vast majority of ordinary society.

The largest body of work, that of his first mature period, some of which has been transformed into new images in recent years, consists mostly of fantastic re-creations, projections, or investigations of his domestic life of the time. It is here that Peters gradually comes to an intimate understanding of his subject, which enables him to portray her as a being quite independent of his perceptions or hopes, or even as resisting the confines of his eye (e.g., Studio with Blue Divan). The work often seems fraught with the tension between reality and an imagined relationship to his subject. The palette of these works is typically dark, even extending to the flesh of his figures, the surfaces of which take on locally abstract qualities, and which often run to shades a good deal more ashen, or even black, than to those within the normal register of skin tones. Many of them consist of blacks, grays, and neutrals relieved by only a single primary or secondary color, which naturally tends to dominate the scene (e.g., Truro Mother, Red Studio/Blue Sky, Night Visitor, etc.), often lending them a consistent, if spare, emotional cast.

The third, current, body of work, which dates from 2008 to the present, represents a new orientation toward the artist’s (new) subject. His palette has brightened, if not necessarily expanded, and the arrangement of his figures as well as his perspective on them has fundamentally changed. The usually subtle sense of anxiety that carried over into the first mature work is gone, and his new subjects are at ease, if sometimes contemplative, demonstratively engaged with each other, and often playful. There is a manifest joy in the work, which is apparent even in its new means of applying paint, the brightening of outlines or eschewing them altogether, Peters’s at least occasional recourse to a more spontaneous mode and tempo of painting than in the previous work, and in tending, if not to invite the viewer into the scene, at least not to keep him at a distance. The subject now sometimes faces the viewer or, when engaged in her own thoughts or activities, is portrayed in a state of repose, contentment, or concentration. The artist himself, both as character and as onlooker, no longer gives the impression of being a foreign element or an interloper in the work, but rather a figure fully immersed in his relationship to his subject.

The place of biography (and auto-biography) in Peters’s work is a tortured subject, and throughout his career there has been a regular, and obfuscating, effort among viewers and reviewers to identify its biographical origins – as if the works simply document married life, male fantasy, the life of the artist, or anything else we might already understand as traditionally problematic – in the hope that what is uncomfortable about viewing the them might thereby be explained away, that the tableaux presented in such intimate and caring detail might be forgiven, or at least accepted. That this search bears some fruit complicates the issue, but mostly by confusing its reception with the paltry products of gossip, journalism, and psychology. Peters’s paintings are painted from life, though not in the traditional sense. They emerge from the persistent and conscientious imagination and the fantasy life of their creator, from memory as well as desire. Their creation is a lengthy and a tortured process, and they frequently undergo radical change as the faults of one image suggest improvements for the next. They depict domestic bliss, and strife, and that strange admixture of familial love – of body familiarity, and the dirtiness of bathrooms and kitchens – and erotic sensuality, which is seldom undivided in the discourse of our culture, no matter how it may manifest itself in our homes. They embody truths far deeper than mere fidelity to their subjects.

The art of Jim Peters represents a focused life-long effort to understand love, the objects of his own passion, and himself, to depict the subtle and hidden sorrows and joys of marriage, to explore the elemental yearning to be at one with another, and, in fact, to reveal in images what it is to realize that call of the spirit. Seeing the incarnations through which his obsession has passed placed side by side is the visual Bildungsroman of a uniquely driven, yet oddly universal soul, the record of a journey of self-discovery as methodical and focused as it has been impassioned and turbulent.

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