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Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Peter Eastman at SMAC Art Gallery

Peter Eastman at SMAC Art Gallery Cape Town

By Tim Leibbrandt
08 May - 21 June. 0 Comment(s)
Deep Chine I

Peter Eastman
Deep Chine I, 2014. Oil on Aluminium 45 x 60 cm.

There is something rather heartening about the fact that the experience of an artwork can almost never be adequately substituted for by its documentation or its reproduction, the vast majority of which fails mightily at capturing the work which it supposedly represents. For anything deviating from two dimensions (ie performance, sculpture, video etc) this is an obvious point. But it is also applicable to drawing, painting and even photography. This was made clear to me in 2011 when I saw Roy Lichtenstein’s Whaam! (1963) at the Tate. Reproductions of the work never seem to reflect how thickly the dabs of paint have been applied, often with a sizeable kuif trailing off the canvas. In images, the work is usually interchangeable with the Ben-Day dotted pulp that it references.

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Deep Chine XXIX

Peter Eastman
Deep Chine XXIX
2014
Oil on Aluminium
150 x 118 cm

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A similar effect is true for ‘Deep Chine’, the most recent exhibition by Peter Eastman. The posters advertising the exhibition (and indeed the images on the SMAC gallery website) resemble the offshoot of someone playing with their Photoshop filters for too long. Something not reflected by these images is how damn painterly Eastman’s works actually are, making for a pleasant surprise when the paintings are encountered in the flesh. Eastman is obviously no stranger to thick, solid blocks of colour, but the bases here are anything but uniform. Visible, dense brush strokes, haphazard and uneven distribution of planes and even fingerprint marks (the literal sign of the artist) are the hallmarks of this body of work and the paintings are peppered with nimble monochromatic dashes defining the forest scenes – scenes which dissolve into abstraction the moment they are viewed from close.

Besides being a nuisance to photograph, a defining trait of Eastman’s oeuvre is a limiting of his variables, keeping his paintings focussed on studies between finely controlled elements. The works operate in dichotomous contrasts, contrasts between colour, contrasts between horizontal and vertical, contrasts between abstract and representational painterliness. Defining the parameters of ‘Deep Chine’, Eastman set about producing a series of experimental variations accordingly. The works as a whole are quite visually similar and thus one criticism which could be levelled against the exhibition is that it is repetitious. And yes, it could probably have been edited down a tad without losing any of its impact. That being said, at least there is sufficient diversity within the repetition that it becomes clear which works are prime examples of Eastman’s current direction (Deep Chine I, Deep Chine XV and Deep Chine XVII) and those which are, for lack of a better phrase, 'just there' (Deep Chine XXV and Deep Chine VIII). None of them are terrible, and in another context outside of the exhibition, any of the works could stand on their own.

The combined effect of the repetition does however give a sense of wandering through thick forest (albeit a hazy dreamlike forest) where specific details catch the viewer’s attention amidst the mass of tree, shrubbery and streams. The works themselves shift from the still-watered calm of Deep Chine XXII to the frenetic blurring of Deep Chine XIX, which creates an impression of running at speed. They enact a free-play of 'seeing the forest for the trees', shifting between deft reproductions of forest scenes and juxtaposed painterly mark-making. There is a precise economy to Eastman’s representational elements, depicting exactly enough to define the scene while still creating the impression of a (heavily mediated) photographic source. 

The act of mediating an image through painting is obviously a central concern to Eastman, guiding his experimentation with the implications of colour shifts and different painting effects from one work to the next. It is not experimentation with any specifically desired outcome necessarily, which may account for a series of rather bizarre metallic chrome works in the far end of the exhibition which I honestly failed to make sense of within the context of ‘Deep Chine’.

Deep Chine XXV

Peter Eastman
Deep Chine XXV
2014
Oil on Aluminium
60 x 45 cm

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The shifts in palette serve to define the mood in each of the scenes, and not all of the works are as calm and serene as paintings of forests and streams would seem to imply. Eastman is particularly adept at playing games with the layering and planes in his work. A fine example of this is the vertical pale yellow streak in Deep Chine I. Try as one may, the streak of paint refuses to optically subsume into the scene behind it and continuously fractures the viewing of the work. While the rest of the painting shifts depending on the lighting and angle from which the work is viewed, this smeared streak of paint stubbornly remains constant. It renders the works conducive to a continuously shifting reception while resisting any overthinking.

To elaborate on this sentence (and by no means do I intend this as a patronising statement), I would hazard that this is an exhibition intended to be seen rather than thought. What I mean by this is that I doubt Eastman is particularly concerned with 'saying' anything with these works. They are formal painterly experiments which make sense through being physically viewed. The works aren’t some sort of critique on Romantic/Impressionist nature painting. There is far more of a sense of Eastman attempting to capture the nature of a good stroll through the forest. That is, of an escapist site of general contemplation; a springboard for the mind to go off wandering.

Without being excessively formalist, ‘Deep Chine’ is very much a painters’ exhibition, extending Eastman’s studies in controlled-variable painterly experimentation in subtle and visually arresting ways. It is refreshing to see a painter successfully skirting between image-making and mark-making in ways other than straight-ahead abstraction with taped representational elements or vice versa.