Q&A with Artist Peter Eastman

Q&A with Artist Peter Eastman
Peter Eastman, A Steep Drop to the River (detail), 2023, oil on aluminum, original size 236 x135

INTERVIEWED BY Alastair Whitton

During the course of his career, Peter Eastman has explored a variety of paint techniques and mediums. Over the last few years, the artist’s substrate of choice has been aluminium to which he applies amongst other things enamel, resin, wax, graphite and oil paint. Cape Town-based Art Director and curator Alastair Whitton⁣ sat down to talk with Peter ahead of his first solo‎ exhibition at The Barnard Gallery titled Even Rocks Melt in the Sun.

What influence, if any, has your previous work as an antiques restorer in London had on your own painting practice?

Working with antiquities exposed me to a variety of techniques and methods of making, and perhaps a deeper understanding of materials and how they age over time. For certain projects one had to mimic the techniques of the original, whether that was working in metal, stone or an Egyptian sarcophagus.

Although first and foremost a painter, your practice nonetheless relies quite heavily on your use of photography and other technological aids. Perhaps you could elaborate more on your process of production as well as the ‘origination’ of your images?

In the 90’s when I was at school I loved the aesthetic of the photocopied image. We spent a lot of time photocopying Particularly in black and white, partly for cost but also because it looked better. It was also the machine that you could operate without the staff of the copy shop interfering which allowed for more time to experiment with cutting up and over copying. The degradation that occurs through multiple copies of the same image is something very beautiful…I realise now in retrospect that the tool of the photocopy is perhaps something of that era and informs the aesthetic of my works. The paintings are of course very entangled with photography. Not quite painting not quite photography, but I’m happy for them to occupy this strange hybrid space.

Your preferred substrate of aluminium for your works has been a defining feature of your practice for at least a decade now; what made you gravitate to this material and what bearing does it have on your painting process?

Painting on metal goes back to the Dutch painters of the 17th century who used it for the precision and vibrancy of colours the flat surface allows. For me this surface also gives a neutral starting point where at the beginning stages of priming I create a grain of vertical brush marks which I use to create the half tones when painting the image.

With growing sensitivity to climate change issues globally, environmental concerns have, to some extent, become an important part of contemporary artistic discourse. Does the particular focus of your subject matter have any bearing on this prevailing dialogue?

I don’t think it does overtly, but this piece of forest that I paint over and over is ancient old growth forest that has never had any kind of human intervention on it, one is acutely aware of this when looking at the old trees, but also in things like the thick spongy humus of the forest floor. Due to the steep geography of this location, it was unable to be affected by logging in the 19th century. I do however always have a feeling of anxiety when I spend time here that this place and others like it can disappear so easily as we develop and destroy wild places. Perhaps that feeling of fragility, balance and connectedness comes through in the paintings 

Although I am not quite able to ‘put my finger’ on it, I have always sensed something of the ‘oriental’ in your Deep Chine works – not simply their particular style and aesthetic, but something, somehow deeper than this. Would I be accurate in my perception, and if so, perhaps you could explain your works connection, if any, with the Far East?

It might be relevant to explain how my family came to own this piece of land. My grandfather was born in Yokohama, Japan in 1914. His German/Prussian Jewish parents had left Germany and emigrated in 1850 to America. It was a family of merchants and in 1853 Japan had opened its doors to the outside world. The three brothers in the family started a business trading in silk with Japan around the 1870’s. The siblings were stationed between New York, San Francisco and Yokohama. The company was called Mendelson Brothers.

In this period the desire for objects, art and silks from Japan was enormous in the west. It seems to have been a successful business but perhaps due to the earthquake in San Francisco in 1912 and the devastating earthquake in Yokohama in 1923 the business closed and my grand-fathers family moved to South Africa. When his mother died, he inherited money that came from this Mendelson brothers trading business. With this money he bought this large piece of land with deep kloofs and hills that he named “Deep Chine”. He never lived there and the only house on the property is a small off grid cottage.  Growing up we had quite a few art objects at home, netsuke and Japanese woodblock prints of this era that the family had bought while living in Japan, original Hokusai prints amongst others. Looking back I can see elements that I loved in these images as possible influences in my painting aesthetic, I was particularly always entranced by the one image of white snow falling against a dark sky.

Even Rocks Melt in the Sun will be on display at the Barnard Gallery from 6 June to 4 July 2023.

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