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‘LOVE & FEAR ‘- Innocence and experience in the art of Michael Peck

By Alex McCulloch

Michael Peck does create alternate universes; they are ones that appropriate memories from chronological time, but when he presents them in his art one is aware that the present holds for him the promises of, and fears for, that which has happened and that which is yet to come. His use of children in his art is of particular interest in this respect, as they embody a future to be navigated as well as the sheer weight of history. His visions across his exhibitions focus on innocence, but of the kind that at the moment of optimism may be ruptured by a tragic awareness of its transitory state. Emotions of hope and fear wrestle for dominance in his art. This makes for sombre art certainly but also the sense that recognising the dangers of our world and the ramifications of human will and error is also an attainment.

Michael Peck has now an enduring presence in the art world. Since his mid-twenties he has had 8 solo exhibitions in both Melbourne and Sydney – his last four at Metro Gallery in Armadale, Melbourne. He has fulfilled the early prophecy implied in being awarded “the most prominent first year painter at Monash University” as a nineteen-year-old, and winning the National Gallery of Victoria Trustees Award two years later. Since those early days he has been a finalist in 10 of the most prestigious national art prizes including the Archibald Prize in 2012. Peck has had public commissions in Australia and Europe and his work is held in both public and private collections in Australia, London, New York and Hong Kong. His solo exhibition, scheduled for 18 November to 14 December at Metro Gallery, further develops his themes of living in a world in a constant state of change and to a large extent one senses that his paintings are moments of anticipation, usually embodied in the form of a young boy transfixed in a moment of stillness; this embodies for an audience the subject as potential actor in a state of contemplation. Peck notes:

“I’m always seeking to create a tension in the work – the suspense in the feeling that something has just happened or is about to happen. The paintings often represent a pause, a moment of contemplation where a decision is made and understanding is gained. These moments are pivotal; they present a change of direction and perspective, the beginning of metamorphosis.”

And yet one can’t quite place his figure in any particular historical period; Peck in fact selects “elements from different time frames, in order to create alternate realities.” These other possible worlds are represented in the narratives that pervade his paintings; whether they are deliberately imposed is doubtful but the viewer sees the boy with the binoculars and wants toknow what he is seeing. Are there more ducks in flight following those in the sky? Where is this child in this attitude of surveillance? A bunker-like structure dominates the background, its entrance obscured by wild unkempt vegetation suggesting a different kind of hiding place
to the one now claimed by the boy. Of course it is unseen from the road, but the lampposts and wires signal its urban connections. The blossoms are delicate like snow, the light luminous despite the suggestion of a sepia photograph. Did the boy find those old style binoculars in the ‘shed’ overgrown and long abandoned? I asked Michael if he saw the image that will form the content of his painting before the narrative/idea, or after, or simultaneously? His response was intriguing in that it led to his discussing his artistic process in an illuminating way:

“Often during the drawing process there is a push and pull between the image and the narrative. The process can start with either an image in my head or an idea I’d like to explore. However, I never set out to produce a body of work with a clear idea of where I will end up. Rather, the narrative really starts to take shape as a dialogue starts to form naturally between the works. I work fairly instinctively; I don’t always understand what I’m painting about, but I like the moment when they reveal something new to me.”

Peck does not reject a biographical connection being made between his art and his life and concedes that the small boy in the paintings might be different versions of himself, “either versions that I am fearful of or versions that I long to be.” It is tempting to tease this out further, but Peck’s philosophies of life are such that this is merely
one perspective among a multiplicity of others. His interest in the necessity of navigating both conditions of loving and fearing reminds one that dreams themselves, at least within the Freudian model, are driven by these emotions and related desires. Peck’s paintings do generate forces of Eros (love) and Thanatos (death), ones that he demands to be acknowledged as part of our experience and certainly they do have the aura of a dream. Generally, there is an optimism attached to these perceptions and it comes in the guise of uncertainty. Look for example at the painting where the figure is in a state of contemplation and the immediate environs are shrouded in fog. Peck speaks of the “frontier” – another place, situated somewhere between our inner and outer worlds and also common to both. “Fog,” he says, “represents indefiniteness, a state between the real and the unreal.” “In fog,” he notes, “we need to move slower; a more cautious awareness arises.”

He, for example, may blur boundaries in one painting suggesting an unknowable world, but Peck does not stand still in his navigation between loving and fearing. The figure that stands very still in the water with ancient forest trees surrounding him/her is employed to further explore the motif of water in both its metaphorical and literal meaning:
“I have used water symbolically in a number of ways in the past; however, these works really adhere to the philosophy that the lotus, the most beautiful flower, grows in the mud. Enlightenment comes through adversity. We all face the same obstacles; sadness, loss, illness, dying and
death, however, it is often through experiencing these things that we gain wisdom and become more compassionate.”

In talking with Michael Peck, he seems to inhabit different planes of thinking and experiencing. These planes of meaning do intersect, but what is clear is that Peck seeks to represent the search for meaning in his art. It affirms his struggle to sustain a belief in the sacred with all its contradictions, his determination to hold close to him priorities
that relate to his role as a father, his awareness of the fears and love that permeate that state and his existential preference to face the fact of mortality in order to find the most from life itself. Peck plays with symbols appropriated from across time: his birds are soul-like and embody the spirit of freedom and escape, as well as the benefit of seeing an overview of humanity from above.

His coupling of the bird with the skull and his general use of both these elements testify to the awareness of dualities. The skull, he explains,
in these paintings performs two particular symbolic functions. Firstly, it is “a reference to the tradition of memento mori; the symbol of the skull acts as a reminder of mortality. Awareness of death allows us a greater appreciation of life. The paintings present elements of young and old, death and rebirth, darkness and light. These things, although opposite, exist together; without the contrast we would not be as aware of their greater significance.” And secondly, the skulls are “a physical and symbolic aide-mémoire of rituals, values and traditions passed between generations. The shaping of our values and beliefs originate in our ancestors and can act to either strengthen or burden us. The paintings represent a simultaneous respect as well as a questioning of these things.” Which brings me to the ducks/birds that appear so often in his surreal, still landscapes. They do of course have the ability to see all in their long-distanced flight patterns. Peck elaborates: “They have lightness
and they defy gravity. They represent freedom to us, yet at the same time we are a threat to them.”

Peck is primarily interested, to quote him, “in creating new worlds, which draw on past, present, future, as well as all the possibilities of the imagination.” Peck has explained that he selects elements from different time frames, in order to create alternate realities. However, with every reference to another time, with every dream-like narrative fed by love and fear, with every painted philosophical insight, his creations of new ‘being’, and new landscapes/mindscapes, bring into view a little boy lost and a little boy found.

Published: Vault New Art & Culture Issue 4, August 2013