This week on The Arts Show Alex McCulloch chats with Melbourne artist Peter Thomas. Peter began each work in this series by lying on a concrete floor, writing across raw felt in acrylic paint. It’s surprisingly taxing on his lower back. He writes about the things that are bothering him at that moment, about addiction, mental illness, intergenerational trauma, about trust, considering each word. This informs how each painting begins. His exhibtion ‘Manipulations’ is currently on show at Fox Galleries in Collingwood.
“I think art is the only political power, the only revolutionary power, the only evolutionary power, the only power to free humankind from all repression.”
– Joseph Beuys
The felt is mounted onto panels and sealed, sometimes entirely and sometimes only partly, with layers of acrylic, enamel, hydrostone of fortified plaster mixed with powdered pigments. He puts paint on, and scrubs it off, often using a power sander to sand back sections or the whole thing. Once he’s happy with the surface, he cuts it, rips it, attacks it with hammers or axes or knives or a box cutter, generally whatever comes to hand. He smashes it pretty hard. Sometimes he shoots it with a gun. After attacking it he might apply more layers of paint, varnish or a floor sealer and sand it again, or otherwise he goes in for another attack.
The methodology behind these works mirrors that of physical violence, and even in their final forms each piece has scars. The act of creation is simultaneous to destruction, akin to the artists in Europe and the Gutai group in Japan who destroyed their canvases in the wake of the Holocaust, WWII and the Cold War. They had been influenced by Jackson Pollack’s uninhibited action paintings, where each gesture was understood as an expression of an inner, psychological truth. As Francis Bacon put it, “Painting is the pattern of one’s own nervous system being projected on canvas.”
In 2016 Thomas made a series of charcoal drawings that picture men fighting, frozen mid punch within the pitch black of night. To make the work, he sat in his car on Kings Street in Melbourne at 3am and waited for the alcohol-induced brawls to begin, questioning the cycles of trauma and tragedy that were playing out.
In this new series however, Thomas’ images veer away from representation and towards a charged materiality. The use of felt references Joseph Beuys’ notorious WWII plane crash after which Tatar tribesman saved him by wrapping him in felt. Thomas’ felt is at once a canvas, a page in a journal, and a body, all of which endure discordant cycles of damage, trauma and recovery.
Collapsing time, these works are the body before, during and after injury, and the mind before, during and after therapy. They are as much about destruction as they are about reconstruction. They teach us to own the everyday violences that shape how we view ourselves and the world, then to process them, and let them go.