From the Archives

Gary Petersen: Tilting Points

Gary Petersen installing "Tilting Points"

Gary Petersen: Tilting Points
September 28, 2014–January 18, 2015
Curated by Mary Birmingham

From the exhibition catalogue:

Gary Petersen is a New York-based painter known for his dynamic and colorful geometric abstractions.  During the past several years he has extended his studio practice and experimented with large-scale paintings directly on the wall.  For this site-specific project in Studio X, Petersen has created a painting that encompasses all five of the gallery walls.  The viewer entering the space is immediately surrounded by and immersed in the work.  Tilting Points is effectively a “walk-in” painting that transforms two-dimensional imagery into a three-dimensional environment.

Responding to the architecture of Studio X, Petersen takes full advantage of its somewhat quirky features.  The low ceiling, off-center glass door, angled fifth wall and oblique corners make the room an ideal space for Petersen’s work, which presents fresh perspectives on geometric structure.  Working intuitively, the artist looks to his own previous work for inspiration.  The tilted forms resembling empty frames derive from his vertically oriented paintings on wood and canvas; here he stretches and distorts the shapes to fit the horizontal format of the wall. There is perhaps some irony in Petersen’s use of this imagery, as the gallery wall—normally a site for framed paintings—literally becomes a painting of empty frames.

A skilled colorist, Petersen chose a sunny yellow hue as the perfect backdrop for angled lines of varying widths, lengths and colors.  These lines zip across the gallery walls, sometimes climbing sharply or making sudden drops.  Lines often balance tautly on their points of origin; at other times they ricochet around the room, bouncing from point to point.

The artist employs a rich and nuanced palette to disperse and balance colors throughout the gallery, building subtle relationships through repetition and variation.  The viewer’s eye wanders from color to color:  aqua, green, turquoise, and teal; peach, tangerine, and orange; pink, magenta, and violet; and shades ranging from grey and ochre to tan, brown, maroon, and aubergine. With extended looking, some color juxtapositions may prompt optical effects, as the assertive yellow background pushes forward and then recedes.

Stacks of off-kilter polygons suggest mazes or telescoping tunnels and this layering of angled lines and shapes has a mesmerizing effect.  Forms appear to tip and spill into the gallery, while simultaneously receding.  This conveys the illusion of deeper space behind the gallery walls, and even more dramatically, makes some of the walls look like they are tilting. The compression and expansion of space is in constant dialogue with Peterson’s intricate linear network, building a tension that activates the work.  Some taut lines appear as if stretched like elastic bands, ready to spring back at any moment.

Petersen’s interest in how things simultaneously come together and pull apart is evident in the way Tilting Points negotiates the five corners of Studio X.  Lines continue their expansive trajectories over the oblique corners, causing straight lines to appear bent on the angled wall. As lines approach and intersect the right-angled corners, they often rebound and change direction like a speeding pinball.  Far from painting himself into a corner, Petersen has liberated the corner from a terminal point to a point of departure.

The artist considers the idea of contradiction to be central to his work. Seeking a balance between chaos and control, he plays with opposing ideas such as horizontal and vertical formats, warm and cool colors, real and illusionistic space, compression and expansion, geometry and pop culture.  Equally at ease with the realm of the math book and the comic book, Tilting Points piques the intellect as well as the emotions, and satisfies both.

Art Center Curator Mary Birmingham recently checked in with Gary Petersen to see how the current pandemic was affecting his artwork and his process.

Mary Birmingham: You have been making some very compelling drawings using colored pencil on paper. While this medium may seem an obvious choice for an artist working away from his studio, it is one you have often used in the past. How do these new colored pencil drawings relate to those you’ve done in the past?

Gary Petersen: They continue, and expand upon, on my current vocabulary. So they are similar and a continuation of the early drawings. But some new ideas may come from them that I can use in my paintings when I get back to my studio.

MB: The work you showed at the VACNJ was an immersive mural project that filled an entire small gallery, and your painting practice utilizes a diversity of sizes. Your current drawings are more intimately-scaled but convey a similar dynamism. Can you comment on the impact and meaning of scale?

GP: The immersive project was thanks to you! Prior to that, I had done either one or two walls. I remember when you approached me that you had a room at VACNJ and thought I should do something using all the walls. With the wall works, you respond with both your eyes and your body. You see and feel it. There is a physical reaction to this real and present thing. And with the project at VACNJ it was all around you. I like the other end of it as well, doing small drawings. Where, because they have this intimacy, you feel you can hold them in your hand and only your eye and mind enters the work.

MB: Why colored pencil? (as opposed to acrylic or watercolor or ink, etc.)

GP: I did a few back in 2018 for a group show at my gallery, McKenzie Fine Art. After that I’ve been doing mostly mixed medium works on paper, using colored pencil with inks, pencil, and acrylics. I enjoy drawing and it felt good to me, to return to these while self-isolating at home. I set up a hollow core door on two sawhorses and use that as my “studio”. I can work on some very small paintings but right now I’m just going with the drawing, I’m having fun with them. And right now I need all the color I can get in these very dark times we are living through!

MB: Is there a silver lining you can share?

GP: Besides a renewed understanding of the importance of science in this country, there are hopefully some changes for the good in the art world. It’s a shame that it will take a pandemic, which is causing so much death and suffering, to cause a correction. I personally feel the art world has been spinning out of control. Too many art fairs and I’d be happy if we didn’t have any. I would like it to get back to looking at art in the galleries again, slow things down and look.

MB: I know you are lucky to have a temporary studio in your NJ home, but I’m sure you miss the conventional studio time. What’s the first thing you will probably do when you get back into your Brooklyn studio?

GP: First, I’ll feel happy to be back at my “second home.” I’ll probably start stretching and priming canvases. I only had one primed and ready to go when I left. Then, simultaneously, start working on the one that is ready.

MB: You’ve mentioned that one of the biggest impacts of the pandemic has been that you can no longer go to see art in galleries, museums, and artists’ studios. (I feel your pain!) How are you coping with this loss? Is there any substitute? What are you doing instead?

GP: Well, Instagram has been great to see what friends and colleagues are doing. But I really don’t like looking at art on a screen. Virtual viewing rooms don’t do it for me. So I have a nice library of art books and prefer to look at images that way.