Peter Cross, Works on paper - Jean-Paul Martinon
Rear Window Publications
1992 © Jean-Paul Martinon
Peter Cross started his works on paper when travelling, as a sort of diary, taking with him, away from the cultural weight of the studio, the easily transportable materials of the “landscape artist” and carrying them from town to town. However, he did not take his materials in the same way as a traditional landscape painter, taking notes of the countryside, like Cotman in East Anglia or Turner in Switzerland. He took them paradoxically as a “city painter,” locked in a room in the centre of an urban life, surrounded by people, by bonded and sewn together structures, but thousands of bricks, cables, pipes and drains, in the centre of a living cosmogony that reflects the inner complexity of the individual.
Born in 1950, in Brazil, but raised in England from the age of 11, Cross’s use of colour and light is typical of someone brought up in two antagonistic cultures and countries. The audacity with which he combines northern light with bright colours such as brilliant yellow and geranium red reveals a unique sense of observation and colour coordination. This perception becomes apparent when looking at his technique. Not only does he put one wash over another to obtain gradations of colour and tone, but he also retains in the classical way the monochromatic under-painting as a base. In addition to that, he sometimes wipes out areas of dry colour by scratching the surface of the paper with palette knives or spatula. The monopoly of paintbrushes seems to have been abandoned. Accidental patterns and lines are often created by blocks of wood slightly painted on one side and then pressed onto the paper, or by using sponges, ink rollers, or stencils. His constant need to bring together colours from opposite ends of the spectrum leads him to use oil paint, printing ink, and encaustic. This tends to heighten and strengthen the bodies of colours and create a wide field of tones and lights. The basic medium he has chosen here is part of a very strong British tradition of seeing and painting. However, this tradition re-emerges somehow transcended in each piece of work.
To approach these paintings after the theorised death of authenticity and expression left over by post-modernism one has to refuse to take art history in linear terms otherwise they come across either as perfect example of a “fin de siècle” Neo-Abstract Expressionism or just as conventional lyrical exercises in good taste. Abstract expressionist art is largely dedicated to a kind of work that tries to achieve a sort of zero-form/zero-content metaphor for the unspeakable, denying the “objectness” of painting. To avoid this reductive and recently too often celebrated perspective (see Richter), Peter Cross uses abstraction like a poet uses words and silences, simply as a tool—a tool that helps him to explore the dynamics of abstract creation. What interests him is not to depict the mainstream of “city-life,” or even by contrast of an ethereal utopian “inner-life,” not even to push the limits of visual language, but to express the move between inner desire and outer expression, to find the essential forces that lie between the existing systems and the signs he projects.
This is the reason why they cannot be seen as abstract landscapes, not only because this would be a contradiction in itself, but because these pieces of work refuse the escapism a conventional landscape—abstract or not—produces. They do not invite or refer like, for instance, a MacKeever painting, but seduce. They seduce, of course, with the essential qualities of the materials involved: colour, light, and rhythm. However, they seduce above all, because they refer primarily to themselves; to their inner rhythm and repetition. This could be seen as sterile or reductive. However, they pull in the other direction. They are a seductive challenge that does not create, propose, or categorise but tries to evade the didactic. They express vulnerability not conviction. As he himself says: “The information I want to give is value free, open ended, intuitive, probably erotic. Something about wanting to cover over gaps, differences and anxiety, to give form to formless energy.”
Peter Cross takes us back to Plato’s Cratylus and to Hermogenes’s discussion on the difficult position of the artist in front of his subjective faith in the (visual) language used—here abstraction. His works on paper try to concentrate, having removed those specific shadows of forms and meanings, on a general non-specific flickering, accident, that pulls through the cracks and passes between the sign and the signified, between the essence and its reflection. The aim of this seductive challenge is therefore to question the dynamics of abstract expression and, as a consequence, to confront the value of visual experience itself.
“Looking should be a constant search,” says Peter Cross recalling a master such as Cezanne. To fulfil this nostalgic but seemingly essential “early modern” task, he sets himself, as an abstract painter, the ambitious aim of starting each work as if for the first time, always rephrasing, repeating, replaying the same drama until the specific becomes general, until the gap between perception and expression is totally minimised. They are sketches, and as you would expect from sketches presented as final pieces of work, they refuse structure and unity. This constant repetition, page after page of the process of visualisation and this systematic refusal to unify, is not a sudden angry proclamation of non-sense. These works on paper strive to express the humming and vibrating firing line that beams between the act of seeing and the un-escapable mental image formation. In fact they are, as well as questioning and defying forgotten values, an act of faith in this end of century/millennium.
Finally and by contrast, the work has the tendency to look like small acts of survival: they witness daily life, routine, and all those chaotic movements under the illusory order imposed a posteriori by reason. One could object that the installation of the work cancels this aspect, takes it out of its context: the journal. However, the fact of separating them from their environment and presenting them, not on the neutral white walls of a gallery or on the immaculate white sheets of a book, but as part of an artificial setting—the multi-coloured installation in this alternative space—gives them an unusual and unexpected social dimension. This way of installing them is reminiscent of what the writer Michel Butor says in his novel Passing Time. To shift the background can often create a situation where the fragile overwhelms the concrete, where the transitory—these small daily outbursts, these extracts of a dairy—overtakes the permanent, the framework, the final text. And the aim of this small shift is to evade the risk of the master narrative, of the masterwork and to preserve the faith in the inconsequential.
Words like colours are signs for the one who listens and observes. However, if these signs are used as part of a different vocabulary and context, they lose their resonance and complexity and become useful and above all meaningful. Peter Cross, far away from “bucolic life,” in the centre of his “urban spheres” takes on the difficult tradition of authentic poetry from Theocritus to Pasolini, from abstract patterns of early Arabic carpets to the oil paintings of a Kirkeby and gives us more than just a journal, an anthology of “poems on paper.” Poems set up as an absolute discipline that only fears the excesses of its own freedom.