Empty Vessels Full of Questions

7 Mar 2012 in Highland, Showcase, Visual Arts & Crafts

Mandy Haggith delves into some deep questions with artist Peter White

THERE IS something instantly recognisable about Peter White’s paintings of empty bowls, open books and garments billowing without wearers. In the absences he creates, his presence is unmistakeable.

HE MAKES these often huge paintings in his studio in Ullapool, where, he says, he spends much of his time. It’s a tidy workspace, comfortably heated with a woodburning stove: a place for both profound work and laughter. He moved to Ullapool in 1994 with his wife Eleanor, who teaches art, after about 17 years in Edinburgh.

Peter White

Peter White

His paintings are created in groups of about 10, and when I suggest the collective noun for them might be a ‘flock’ he laughs and sets me right – it’s a ‘bunch’ of paintings! He will spend up to four months working on one bunch, rotating around them as he takes each through many layers of development.

The paintings are made on board, because canvas is too pliable, and begin with a couple of layers of acrylic medium and chalk, setting up an initial texture which feeds right through the ensuing months. Next he begins working with the image in acrylic. He uses layers of wax cooked up in a deep fat fryer.

“I really like working with wax,” he says. “It has that translucence. I use a blow torch quite a lot, to melt it again, so it changes shape. Then I’ll use oil paint on top, and you can scrape back through to reveal a wax surface, like glass, with the lower colour coming through.”

Book 2 (58x122cm. Oil, acrylic, wax)

Book 2 (58x122cm. Oil, acrylic, wax)

Gradually the painting proces becomes more delicate. He describes himself scumbling over rough patches, refining the light by applying washes of colour in solvent, detailing with more delicate brushes as the painting moves towards completion.

“That whole business of texture is always really important to me,” he says. “There’s a tension between the illusion of looking into the space created by the painting, and the texture you are making on the surface – a tension between the illusion of the object in there and the objectness of the painting itself, so at some level you’re going in [to the 3-dimensional illusory space] but you’re also brought back. So the surface has to be a coherent, exciting, living thing itself as an object, while the space within has to be a living space too.”

All of these techniques reflect years of patient experimentation, in a career as an artist in which he says he has never had ‘a real job’.

“I took art as a kind of joke in my sixth year at school, then I went to do business studies at University, but the first day I was there I knew I hated it.”

After a year he dropped out. “I gradually felt I wanted to do art, so I got a portfolio together and went to Art College in Edinburgh. It was good for me to do – being among others doing the same thing gives you confidence and confirmation of what you should be doing.”

Garment 2 (122x186. Oil, acrylic, wax)

Garment 2 (122x186. Oil, acrylic, wax)

Largely self-taught, there are no gurus or teachers he can identify who were particularly important to his education.

“I get things from people,” he says, “but I tend to think I’ll work it out for myself. I’m sure I’ve missed things, but the positive side is that in struggling through things for yourself, you find things you wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. I do a lot of reading, and looking at other’s work is important. I respond to a work in itself, but also I think, how do they do that? Quite often I get really excited by the process in a piece of work and exploration comes out of that.”

His narrowness of focus of subject is very important to him. He cites Darwin, who spent 8 years studying barnacles. “The people I most respect are people who are digging away at one little patch,” he says.

His paintings are particularly limited in theme. They are currently all of singular forms: a bowl or a bottle or an open book with blank pages. Peter describes them as archetypes. “Bowls are probably one of the first objects created by man. A bowl means so much: its ability to carry, its inside and outside, but it retains that archetypal form. A book’s another archetypal form, another vessel.”

Bowl 1. (123x200cm. Oil, acrylic, wax)

Bowl 1. (123x200cm. Oil, acrylic, wax)

The other archetype he uses a lot is the human head. “They work best when it’s not a particular person,” he says. “They’re not portraits. They’re not  pictures of a person at all, at some level. I don’t think of them as existing outside of here. They don’t have a narrative.”

As well as the big paintings, Peter also does pencil drawings from identity photographs from concentration camps from Germany, Russia and Cambodia, which are “a different process entirely” from the painting, but a hugely important exploration for him. Again he says he is not drawing the people.

“The photographs are the subjects. These people are no longer and all that is left of them is just the photograph, along with that whole knowledge of the history of where the photograph came from.”

These incredibly powerful drawings place the viewer in relation to the victims of human atrocities on a vast scale. Asked if there is a moral purpose in these drawings, he says: “It’s deeply about what man is, how man relates to one another, and who am I within that. The photographs are partly about who is in power and it’s important to me that these were taken by the perpetrators, so the person behind the camera is the powerful one and this person here in the picture is the absolute victim. Then me using them as images – who am I within that? In the whole holocaust story, who are we? Are we perpetrators or victims? We could be both. Is this part of the same manipulation?”

Head 3. (15x13cm. Graphite)

Head 3. (15x13cm. Graphite)

There are deep questions at stake here about whether art is a selfish act on the part of the creator, using material to further their own aims, and whether there is room for generosity within that.

“I think our true exploration is generous. Creative exploration may appear very selfish, from the outside, but I believe in communication in art, and that the more focussed you can be, somehow, in that exploration, the more potential you have to give back. And at some level that can give back to these people – and I don’t mean back to that particular person and his life, I mean back to that space.”

He says he does not have any words for that space that sound right, yet he talks of “honouring the bigger picture – using the specific in order to not be specific.”

The fact that art can raise questions of this depth and complexity suggests that it has the capacity to play a more prominent role in society, other than simply as a form of capital investment and a commodity for trade. Peter describes art as “fundamental for our growth as humans”, but doing justice to this potential may take a different kind of approach to arts development by the powers that be than the current bureaucratic top-down programmes.

A really powerful painting can move us, quite literally, in the sense that it can change the way we behave, Peter believes.

“I’m doubtful that art can change the world. At some level I’d say it definitely can, but not at the scale the question’s often asked at. I think the times I’ve been spoken to by a work of art, the sense of a meeting gives me a different slant on what life’s about. And when that happens I think we do change, even if it’s just slightly; not necessarily dramatically, but truthfully. And I believe that these small shifts are absolutely fundamental to the way things change, even though on the surface it looks like nothing’s happened. I believe in small being big, and that one person’s small shift is a huge thing.”

Gazing into the eyes of the faces in his drawings, we are drawn into our own reflections. How do we see ourselves in relation to others? Who are we, standing looking at the drawing of the photograph of an unknown victim? What do we really know about anyone?

© Mandy Haggith, 2012