Q&Art with Russell Pirkle

This week: Peter Jones, local artist and recently retired Tech Professor of Art. Peter's retrospective is currently on display at Louisiana Tech. [wpvideo kLDdadCX]

I want to start out by asking you about the selection process for the paintings for your retrospective. Specifically about which ones were excluded and why.

I had to pick from what I had on hand. And also I had to make sure I didn't duplicate everything that was in the show that I had at the library that was up from August until October, although I figured it was a different audience. So there's some paintings that were in both shows and some that were not. I also, this summer when I was thinking about this upcoming show, I got a couple paintings from Woodstock from my mother's house, and shipped them down here. Because I wanted to have some of the really early stuff like the '67 landscape from Cape Cod. And the still life with the sewing machine and the eggs, which is one of the earliest serious still lifes that I did in the early seventies, when I turned away from painting from memory and started painting from life again. I did figurative . . . You saw the powerpoint I gave, didn't you?

No I missed that. I was out of town.

Okay. I can show you some slides from that. I was doing these invented, expressionistic figures and landscape. Then I saw the joys of painting a figure from life again. I began this series of full length portraits. And then I discovered there were these still lifes that were appearing around the figures. And I thought, you know, I can do those and arrange them however I want. I don't have to worry about a model. And so I started doing still lifes. And that's where it all got going. But it grew out of a desire to figure out a way in the late sixties to paint at the end of the whole modernist thing. I'm digressing here, I figured at that time, as Hans Breder, my teacher in Iowa said, "Painting is dead. It died when Ives Klein painted a canvas blue." This was in '67. I was taking a drawing class in graduate school. And I thought if painting is dead, hey it's a new ballgame. And so I started doing things that were based on the early clumsy Cezanne figures and landscapes. I figured Cezanne is the genius of early modernism. You can't work from the end of Cezanne. If you're going to work from Cezanne you've got to go back to the beginning. So I did this expressionistic drawing. And I remember running into Guston. I didn't know what he was doing at the time. He was getting into his figurative phase in the late sixties. And I thought, hm, that's interesting. He's doing people killing each other, and I'm doing sort of the same thing. But it was different painting entirely. So I wanted to basically tell a narrative that students could make some sense of, from where I started, the very early work I shipped down from Woodstock. Stuff I did when I was a kid.  The earliest piece I did when I was five years old. So I hung that and then I put the photo right next to it. Because I wanted to make it clear that you don't lose that response to color. I don't remember doing that particular pastel at five. But the one with the India ink lines on it, I vividly remember doing. I must have been six or seven. I remember responding to the black and yellow together thinking wow, this is really cool. And of course years later, I'm painting lemons on black backgrounds. So it's all the same thing, but it becomes harder to paint freely when you know more.  When you're a kid, you don't have to worry about dealing with form, and space, and perspective and all that stuff. You can just design on the picture plane. I was lucky that I had my father who was a wonderful artist and a very good teacher. And he basically encouraged me to make what he called designs. This was 1946-47. The whole abstract movement in America was just getting started. He was coming out of the mural projects for the government, which ended during World War II. And he had done a number of commissions. So he was working with easel painting, but I think drifting towards a more abstract approach. So he encouraged me and really liked what I was doing. So I had this early career as an abstract painter, which I was never able to live up to. When you start trying to paint abstractly, when you don't know enough but you know too much you start trying to paint like somebody else. When you're a kid you just do whatever. As Picasso said, he started off drawing like an old master and then he had to learn to draw like a child. But I just did the usual thing, started off doing kid's stuff. And by the time I was nine I figured I have to learn to draw a horse from memory. I couldn't do that so I quit. Most kids do that. So I wanted to tell a story, but I had to also pick it out of the pictures I had available. A lot of the work I've done over the past thirty years is no longer here. It's sold. So I was trying to piece together a narrative.

There's a reclining nude that's in the retrospective. Is that one of the pieces from when you weren't painting from life?

No, that's painting from life. I was very lucky. I was living in Vermont and designing the state magazine for seven years. I moved up there from Virginia. And trying to raise two kids. I wasn't doing a lot of painting, but I showed a couple of landscapes in a local juried show up there. And I got a note from somebody saying that we have this group, we meet every Friday to draw the model. And so I said aha I need to do this. So for three years, three hours every Friday afternoon, we had forty-five minutes of gesture drawing. An hour of ten-fifteen minute poses. And then an hour of an hour pose. And it was great. To get back into drawing from life. This would have been '76, so it was almost nine years since I left grad school. I had not had the chance to draw the model regularly for those nine years. So I did tons and tons of drawings. And then I started doing these studies on canvas, and that's one of them. But that's painted really fast, because you have an hour to get the pose down. I did a series of those. They really got me on board. Because painting the figure and drawing the figure, it's like playing music. It's like playing scales. It's basic. So I did that until I came down here. I showed a bunch of drawings in a show when I first started teaching here. Joe Struthers gave me a show, so I matted up a bunch of drawings and I had some of these figure paintings as well as some still lifes. Basically when I taught that figure painting class in the spring, I was drawing on that experience. That got me back into the figure. But they're all studies. I tried working on a figure away from the model, and it got too stylized. It ended up looking like a stiff Bronzini. I prefer painting the model from life. Painting it from memory, I don't want to go there again. Although I can do it better from memory than I used to.

Your work sort of has this focus of looking back at the old masters. Vermeer, Chardin.


If you move past that read of this reflection on art history, what further meanings are there in your work?

Yeah, it's not a pastiche of the old stuff. These are paintings that are done in the aftermath of the big modernist push. And so, they really have to be about self expression. They have to be about finding something fresh and new. They have to be about design. So you can't turn the clock back. There are artists like Jacob Collins in New York who claims that the entire past 150 years have been a mistake. That starting with Cezanne it all started going downhill. And that Bouguereau and the academic painters in the nineteenth century represent the highest evolution of art and we need to return to those. I think that's bologna. You can't turn the clock back. Some of my very favorite artists of the twentieth century are more abstract. I love Paul Klee. I love Matisse. I love Picasso. I love Braque. There's a whole slew of painters that I admire and really respond to. Of the American painters, Guston and DeKooning are artists that I particularly admire. Not so much Pollock, although he's terrific. I never cared much for Motherwell. Klein I like. I started going to art school at the end of that whole abstract expressionist movement. And of course what really confused everybody was the advent of pop art. Which, if you were to get with the whole idea of action painting or abstract expressionism, to have something that is basically manufactured, with silk screens and comic books. It just threw everybody for a loop. And that's about the time people at most of the universities basically stopped teaching. They just let you go. Pinkston and I basically learned to draw on our own. Because nobody was explaining anything. Because it wasn't necessary anymore. Basically I like the dialogue between the abstraction and the representational object. Because the representational object has meaning to the viewer, and the meaning to the viewer may have to do with totally different ideas than it does to me. But that's okay, because as a friend of mine that's a poet says, once you set it out there and send it forth, somebody's going to read it and see something entirely different. And that's fine. That's part of it. You may not have put it there, but all of those readings are part of what the poem's about. I like the fact that what I'm trying to do is make works that people can come back to, and look at again and again and find new things in. One of the things I've been very pleased with in the work that I've sold over the last thirty years is that a lot of the owners of my work, and of course they don't sell for a ton of money, a lot of the owners of my work have come back for a second and a third and a fourth painting. Because they like the experience of living with it. I had a sort of quasi-epiphany at the Dallas museum one time. I went over there, and the middle there's this sort of knave it's like a cathedral. And there's an Oldenburg. I love Oldenburg by the way. But you know, it's this rope that's holding up this great big circus tent, and it's sticking out of the wall. And then there's a giant Motherwell Spanish republic painting. Number whatever. Once you've seen one of them, you've pretty much seen them all. So there were these giant abstract paintings that could only be seen in a museum, because you can't live with them. And basically you see that and say yeah, that's a Motherwell. And what are you going to get out of looking at the 150th iteration of that big black and white painting. Well you can read the caption and yeah, it talks about Motherwell. People in a museum spend more time reading the caption than they do looking at the painting. Then I went upstairs, and there was a Daumier genre painting about this big, mid nineteenth century. And it was a group of men in a print sellers office. Chiaroscuro. And they were these guys. It was a portfolio with prints in it. And it was the most beautiful little picture. I thought, I could look at that thing everyday in the morning and get sustenance from it. Human experience painted beautifully, it spoke to me. I thought, okay I want to paint still lifes like that. I want to paint still lifes that you're going to look at more than you read the caption.

I've heard your work described as a sort of reaction to the de-emphasis of rudiments and basic drawing and painting skills, and also as you talk about now, this restriction of how much content you get to put into a work in the modernist, and maybe you wouldn't describe it that way, but . . . 

Yeah, you know Guston famously said, "I got sick of all that purity. I wanted to tell stories.

What do you think is the state of affairs today in terms of emphasis on craft and mastery?

I think it's an interesting situation. A lot of different kinds of art are acceptable and are respected. We don't have that single narrative anymore. Of course, the art world is still ruled by big money, and so there is a bizarre situation where stuff can be a hundred thousand dollars or stuff can be. This guy with the silver paintings, twenty-seven years old, just got his MFA a couple years ago. And he sold out a show at six to nine thousand dollars a pop. They're reflective silver emulsion paintings with discoloration on them. And they became so popular that someone bought one for ninety thousand dollars, because they couldn't wait for him to paint another one. And then another was put up at auction and sold for 375 thousand dollars. Now, for a twenty-seven year old that's got one thing going for him, to make that kind of money. I don't see how he's going to have a career. And he's a bright guy. He knows what he's doing. And his work is quite lovely. But if he does anything else, are people going to like it? Are they going to pay big money for it? So there is that element of money in the art world that always distorts things. Leon Golub, the social commentary painter said, 'If the art world wants a million dollar painting, it will create it.' In other words, artists do whatever they want. But the market, it's not simply a reward for good and original work. It likes to believe it's sorting things out. But it throws out a lot of good stuff, and keeps a lot of junk. And they're constantly revising the canon, but it doesn't always work out the way it should. There are thousands of artists who were very good at one point who have not been heard of in fifty years.

Can you tell me about the Woodstock community? Of course we all know about the music festival in '69. But tell me a little more in depth about what it was about and how it influenced you.

Yeah, I grew up in a town where everybody that my parents knew was an artist or a writer.

One aspect of your art that we've left out for the most part is your photography, which is interesting because it seems experimental in ways that your painting isn't.

Sure. It's how I can rediscover the joy of discovery that I felt when I was a kid making those abstractions. Because an abstract photograph is still based on reality. It's not an abstract painting. But you can reference abstract painting. I've always loved photography, and I've done it off and on. Basically the only photography I did when I came here in the '80s, besides taking pictures of my kids, and taking pictures of paintings, was Susan and I would document things. I like documentary photography a lot. As the art director of a state magazine, I became very interested in photojournalism. But when I got my first digital camera in the 2000s, I bought it to document my mother's estate. And I thought, I'm going to go out and take some pictures to illustrate some color theory. So I just started shooting color relationships. And I thought, oh that wall looks like the shutters in a Vermeer painting. And this looks like a Diebenkorn painting. And so I shot that. And I was driving home from school and the light was perfect on that and made a perfect half circle. And on a whim, after putting paintings in the Peach Festival show, I framed up a couple of these photos and put them in there. And this thing won first place, and that was bought. And I thought, damn! And then I had to hunt down the people who bought the paintings and go 'that print is not archival, here.' And switch.

Can you tell me about what motivated you to begin your academic career in art history, and then what motivated the shift to art making?

Well it was being in Europe and taking photographs, among other things. But I went into art history because I had majored in fine arts at Ameryst. And, you know, there's no money in art. You either have to teach, or whatever, but you're not selling paintings. Plus I didn't feel like I was good enough at that point. Because if you go into the family business, your parents are adult artists by the time you're a kid. How do you learn this stuff? As it turns out, everybody that I knew in Woodstock whose parents were artists, they all went into the art business. Everybody did. Writers' kids became writers. Artists' kids became artists. And I talked to my advisor at Ameryst, and said go into art history. Don't try to become a painter. He was bitter anyway, because he was a figurative painter, and this was in the fifties and everything was abstract. He was a painter, but he had a Ph.D. in art history so he was the art historian. So I took off, and I graduated. And I spent a year working in New York just to get my feet off the ground, get a little bit older. And I ended up working in a camera store with a friend of mine. And started taking photographs. My father had died when I was fourteen, so he wasn't around to show me anything. But I set up a darkroom. And got out his enlarger and started teaching myself to make prints. And my kid brother who died at twenty-one, he wanted to make films. And so we would go out, he with his movie camera, and me with my 35mm camera, and clamber around the Hudson river in 1962-63. So when I was going to graduate school in art history, which was what I did after I did that stent in the camera store, I was making photographs. I'd been going to the art students' league in the summer and drawing. So I was still tossing back and forth. But going to Europe in '64, I decided I wanted to keep making art. I really would have liked to stay and Europe and make photographs. I wasn't that good a photographer at that point. I didn't have the experience. And I would have been drafted possibly and sent to Vietnam. So I came back and went to grad school. The other thing that took me into that was the fact that my brother was killed in an auto accident at twenty-one. He was the one who was determined to make a film and do all this stuff. And I was the responsible one who was just going to get a job or whatever. And I think I said, you know, I'm going to do what I want to do. So I went out to Iowa, when I got back from Europe, and I enrolled in painting class, and had to start climbing the hill from way down. Because I didn't have nearly as much experience as most of my fellow students. Because I had only been drawing in the summers. And there was very little painting and drawing at Ameryst. It was mostly art history. And these kids out of big ten schools, some of them had come out of programs where they had been making prints and they were really good. Some were not so good. It was an interesting three years. I think it makes sense looking back, but at the time it felt like a strange move. And I remember lying awake one night and saying what am I doing? I'm wasting my time. Staying up until five in the morning feeling depressed and guilty. I got married and spent two years in New York working at a variety of jobs, including a custom photo finishing lab. So I absorbed a lot of New York at that point, went to shows and was aware of what was going on. And when I taught in Virginia at Sullens College, that got me in with colleagues and stuff like that, and my vision started to evolve. But I put it on hold more or less when I was in Vermont because when you have one and three year old kids running around, and you're trying to juggle two careers and do freelance stuff, you don't have a lot of time to make art. So coming to Louisiana Tech was the key. It got me the show in New York because I got the work done. It got me a chance to basically get a second MFA, come down here and hang around Ed Pinkston. Learn how to teach, learn that you can actually teach people how to draw. It doesn't just happen. That was a revelation. So I figured, hell, I can teach people how to paint. So it's been a very gratifying experience. I wouldn't have missed it for anything. And when you get into a classroom and start teaching, you also teach yourself. You learn. So that was for a long time it was just a really nice balance. But it was my brother's death and the photographs in Europe in '64 that tipped me into the creative end.

I think that's all the questions I have. It's difficult to cover everything.

It's good, I enjoyed it.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

Department of Culture, Recreation & Tourism, in cooperation with the Louisiana State Arts Council, Funding has also been provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, a Federal agency.  In addition funding for the Holiday Arts Tour is supported by a grant from the Louisiana Division of the Arts, Office of Cultural Development, Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism in cooperation with the Louisiana State Arts Council and administered by the Shreveport Regional Arts Council.