Peter Acheson, “Untitled” (2004), oil on canvas. Courtesy of Yovan Torres.
In scale, Peter Acheson’s untitled, abstract paintings and watercolors range from diminutive to small. In fact, one could reproduce all of Acheson’s paintings actual size in a catalogue that would fit comfortably on someone’s lap. Many are square or nearly square, others are more vertically or horizontally oriented. And yet, despite the extreme intimacy of their scale, they do not feel small. This is because of the size of the brushes the artist uses, and the repertoire of mostly linear marks he uses to make a stack or row of rectangular structures, imply expansiveness. The artist’s vocabulary also includes a field of stylized arabesques; rectangular, monochromatic shapes; and a circle or part of a circular shape.
Acheson paints on canvas, wood, or board; none of it fancy. In at least one instance, he has affixed two boards together, most likely because the original was too thin and seemingly delicate. He has also placed a painting inside a homely, tan frame that might have been bought at a garage sale. The frame squeezes the painting a little too tightly, like a cheap suit. To his credit, the artist doesn’t do these sorts of things repeatedly, as it would turn what is still idiosyncrasy into a commodity.
Acheson likes his paint to have the consistency of paste. He applies it both directly and matter-of-factly. In some cases it is built up more in one area than another, largely as a way of demarcating one part of the painting from another. The process is thoughtful, seemingly unhurried, and certainly not fussy. The palette is muted, with variations of orange, ochre, blue, and gray recurring the most often. Also, one hardly sees any green or red in these works. There is an inward, wintry feeling to Acheson’s palette, a feeling that the artist is sensitive to changes in the atmosphere, to the washed out, faded colors of a world where rural life is losing its foothold. He draws his inspiration from daily life—he lives in upstate New York—but he doesn’t make a declaration out of it. Occasionally he uses an orange that is close in color to the vests deer hunters and Department of Transportation workers wear, for example, but the source is not the point. Acheson’s sensitivity to the world he lives in is quietly underscored by his choice of functional and seemingly found materials.
It is clear that Acheson is extremely attentive to a wide range of issues, both practical and otherwise, and that he has not fetishized either his vocabulary or his means. Given the diminutive scale, this non-fetishization should neither be underestimated nor overlooked. For by not announcing either themselves or their importance, Acheson’s paintings go quietly and directly against the grain of what is practically taken as a given these days. Tom Nozkowski’s paintings on canvas board are a clear precedent. As with Nozkowski, Acheson uses neither scale nor subject matter to buttonhole the viewer, nor does he pitch his work towards a museum.
In fact, it seems unlikely a museum would be able to take proper care of Acheson’s small-scaled paintings. If anything, they subvert the public scale of most museum architecture, the sense that every gallery space is a lobby to a building that we will never be permitted to enter, those high places where the trustees, those stalwart captains of culture, drink champagne and nosh on foie gras. It is inevitable given the very public (theatrical) place in contemporary culture the art world has come to occupy, but, as a possible corrective, I would suggest that all museum curators read Manny Farber’s essay, “White Elephant Art versus Termite Art,” as it might cause them to reconsider how radical gestures have been refined and reiterated into a matter of taste. (Is there something to be said about the fact that the only intimately scaled paintings allowed in a museum these days are portraits and pseudo-portraits by John Currin, Elizabeth Peyton, and Luc Tuymans?) However, in the case of Acheson’s work, it is wrong to regard their scale as a sign of modesty, unless we regard modesty as both strength and a virtue. It certainly is in his case. For seeing, they quietly emphasize, is private rather than public, individual rather than shared. And here he avoids the pitfall many others haven’t. He doesn’t use a so-called private language to define private experience. In addition, the paint’s tactility beckons to the viewer. These are works are meant to be both looked at and held; they invite scrutiny.
In a nearly square, wintry, grayish-white painting, the artist juxtaposes a stack of open, bench-like rectangles, each a different color, against a bluish violet hourglass-like structure tightly contained by a similarly colored rectangular structure that extends from the bottom to near the top edge. It’s as if someone found two pictographic languages side by side. And, as with all languages, it feels both personal and anonymous. This is crucial to understanding Acheson’s paintings. In another untitled, vertical painting, the artist has painted a bluish-gray spine down the center of a yellowish-white ground. Unevenly painted lines extend horizontally from the spine to the painting’s edges. On the ends of some of the lines, and there is a visual logic to the choices, the artist has painted a small, crude yellow circle. The artist uses neither a loaded brush nor goes over lines where the paint skips, drags, or does not adhere to the yellowish ground. The painting feels both measured and necessary. In mapping the painting’s plane, it is a sign of both potency and mysteriousness. It reminds us that we can learn to see the world differently, that we can expand our consciousness of the daily, that (and here I am evoking Artaud) the world is full of occult signs.
What elevates Acheson’s paintings into their singularity is his ability to concentrate on perception. He alludes to pictographs, but the paintings are not pictographic. Rather, the visual language is both familiar and remote, individual and nameless. In the best paintings, the scale of the brushstrokes and the size of the forms causes a visual tension to occur. We don’t see the forms in a field. Rather, they vie with the field as well as activate it. In addition, Acheson often juxtaposes different visual languages (a field of arabesques, a closed linear rectangle, a pattern of crisscrossing vertical and horizontal lines), each in a different color or color combination. And while the linear rectangle feels complete, the other two seem like glimpses of something larger. This and other tensions weave a complexity into the paintings, causing them to unfold slowly. Sure, it is about the impurity of abstraction, but that isn’t all that’s on the artist’s mind.
In using different visual languages, each of which is both personal and anonymous, some of which has its origins in the archaic, Acheson situates his work in a tradition that was explored by the Abstract Expressionists and such later figures as Forrest Bess. The difference is that Jackson Pollock and Bess believed that the archaic could be liberating; and it could bring them in touch with their true self. Both Pollock and Bess were influenced by Jung’s definition of the collective unconscious. Acheson’s relationship to the archaic is very different. The vocabulary he has gotten from the archaic is more abstract than either Pollock’s or Bess’s. In addition, his paintings aren’t nostalgic for that utopian moment in Abstract Expressionism. Rather, Acheson’s use of a plain abstract language that is both individual and unsigned is the opposite of what Bess did with a parallel vocabulary. Whereas Bess believed he could arrive at his true self, Acheson maps a world from which we are estranged. His paintings are mute; it is their silence that confronts us. The wintry light in his paintings is really the lucid chill of recognition; we have lost the names of things, even those that are closest at hand. What is all the more remarkable is that Acheson has reached this state of understanding without purporting to be a prophet. Paint’s verities have replaced all traces of personality. In inviting us to hold the paintings, Acheson presents the viewer with palpable evidence of how baffling daily life has become. This intimacy brings the joy and anguish both stubborn and cogent close to home.