by G R Thomson
What to make of the most recent turn in the painting practice of Peter Joseph? If reading is a kind of making, a doing, if not a making do, we might phrase the question otherwise. What is it to read any of Joseph’s paintings? More. What is it to practice the reading of paintings, Joseph’s as any others, ‘as a materialist’? Despite having struggled with such questions, on and off, for over forty years, I confess that I am perhaps not the best-qualified respondent (reader) to answer any of them. I confess thus, despite Joseph’s painting having been with me, in me, guiding the articulation of my practice in the fields of painting and writing, since the mid ’70s. Throughout, I have deliberately refrained from attempting to meet or speak to the maker of the colour paintings I continue to regard as among the very finest produced in the past four decades. Joseph has not had the slightest inkling of any of this. To all intents and purposes, we remain mutually unacquainted. The ‘dialogue’ between his painting and mine has been a round in which only one hand is clapping.
Finally, I should declare that the phase of Joseph’s oeuvre that most remains with me, in me, always, is that in which each painting entertains the same, formally reductive, pictorial device: a single rectangle framed by another. (Joseph prefers the term ‘border’ or ‘surround’ for the framing element. As I struggle to write, he’s probably painting, so forgive me if I stick with my preferred terms: ‘framed’ and ‘framing’.) It scarcely needs repeating that the genitive, and the whole apparatus of mimetic/representational reading historically erected upon it, is here immediately called into question. These are not paintings ‘of’ anything.
The repetition of a deceptively simple, anti-compositional form of pictorial organisation, invites the respondent to walk the tightrope of experiencing each painting as both a part of and apart from a larger undertaking. Repetition draws attention to differences, within each painting and from one painting to the next. These differences and the differences between them are registered in exquisitely calibrated chromatic and tonal orders.
Singularly and severally, these are paintings of a commanding beauty, signatured by great wit and learning, exquisite judgment and artful artlessness, predicated on painstaking research procedures.
Each perfectly scaled and proportioned rectangular painting is de-signed and built from the always-visible, ever-absorbent, ground up to catch, register, reflect chromatic and tonal differences. Each canvas is possessed of an ‘airy severity’ that is the mark of its having been executed with consummate technical skill. The absorbed-absorbing play, sometimes dramatic, sometimes minute, of differences across and between these canvasses is caught, registered, reflected, in the play of natural light, shadow, weave, shadowweave. The drama unfolds in time.
There are paintings in the world that wouldn’t give you the time of day. Not these. They give. Take your time. Linger with intent. Look intently. Hold your breath. Bathe in liquid luminosity. Don’t expire. Come up for air. Break surface. Gasp! Breath deeply. Inspire.
All is changed. All is change. Get your bearings. Circle of seasons. Time of day. Solar azimuth. Solar altitude. Ambient colour. Rake of light. Passing clouds. Fall of light. Rise of light. Rhythmic, respiratory, advance and retreat of that surrounded rectangle of perfect chromatic and tonal pitch.
How to read it? How does it seem? How does it play? Patch? Aperture? Focal length? Edge? Seam? Seme? Field? Fog? How does it play with its immediate, always-darker, frame? And beyond? How does it frame, from the inside, if you please, the skewed complementaries, carefully calibrated tints, shades, greyed-chromaticities, the occasional shouty pink or raw sky blue, of its neighbours? Decidable? Undecidable? None of the above?
At one remove, these are simply among the most exhilarating paintings you will ever experience. At the same time, they are capable of tearing through the manicured envelop of the social imaginary as instituted by the space of the modernist gallery to disclose disturbing realities, not in some beyond, but within. This work of descaling the eye of the normativity of socially constructed vision is not without its traumas. Even respondents such as myself, casting a colder professional eye, perhaps even a little envious, green tinged eye, can be blindsided by a disproportionately lachrymose tearing up, a transporting, ex-stasis, altogether surprising in its intensity.
I believe this kind of surprise to bear some relation to that described by the French structuralist and Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser, as the ‘surprise of science’. It portals a zone of receptivity in which pleasure and learning, affect and episteme, are no longer estranged.
Peter Joseph is no longer with us, so the celebration of his practice must, perforce, be tempered by the strangest of mournings, that for the ‘not yet’ the ‘to come’. For me, the unmannered manner in which that practice addressed the question of colour in painting remains exemplary. Even as our paths diverged, Joseph’s practice remains a touchstone for mine.
The text above excerpted itself from an increasingly voluminous, ever-failing attempt to write on the most recent turn in Joseph’s painting by reference to an earlier, more formally reductive phase, to which I feel more attuned. The reception of the most recent paintings has been characterised by over-contrastive comparison with those from the earlier. One review even described paintings from that earlier phase as ‘diagrammatic’, a term that suggests something schematic, incorporeal. For me, the comparison is borderline slighting, barely comprehensible. Nothing could be further from the case.
I remain grateful to the artist for his favourable reception of my writing, for providing the accompanying images and granting permission to publish a text prompted by one exhibition: ‘Recent Paintings’, The Mercus Barn, 14-17 July 2015, in the context of another: ‘Peter Joseph’, Galerie Bernard Bouche, 5 septembre – 24 octobre 2015.
All photographs are courtesy of Denise Ward.
In memoriam: Peter Joseph (1929 – 2020)
This essay was first published to coincide with the exhibition: ‘G R Thomson “Anachromisms” 2007-2015’, The Mercus Barn, 12 September – 4 October 2015.
Its re-publication is dedicated to the memory of Peter Joseph, renderer, out of the unpromising matter of cotton duck, brushes and paint, of a sublime pictorial poetics of light and space.