Sunday, October 01, 2006

Denis Peterson, painter

A quite nice blog post about New York airbrush artist Denis Peterson. Airbrushing has a sort of unsavory aura about it in our culture. Most Americans, particularly those who are interested in the arts, view it as a bastardized medium, a commercial medium, a tool for deception and propaganda. Indeed the phrase "airbrushing" has a secondary meaning of glossing over, providing a spin-doctored interpretation. Few people understand why someone might persue airbrushing as a "fine-art" medium.
Well, I 'll save the rant about the artificial divisions of commercial art, crafts, and fine arts for another day. I do have some thoughts on the matter, but I'll save them for another post, and let Chris Rywalt ruminate on the issue for now:

At first glance his paintings seem marvels of precision and in many ways they are. But some of his effects are developed through surprisingly messy work: In one painting there's an almost perfect looking smashed plastic bucket, but if you look very closely you can see a big spray of paint right in the middle of it. You wouldn't think this would work but it does.
Denis told me about a curious technique he learned from his grandfather. Each line you see, he said, is actually three lines. He had some trouble explaining exactly how that worked, but the gist of it is where you think there's only one line, there's actually the end of one material, the beginning of the next, and the edge between them. He applies this to his paintings and it gives his work an interesting shimmer: The lines don't always match up flawlessly and that accounts for the off-register digital video coloration. Of course it may also be fidelity to his source materials. The photos Denis works from are sometimes heavily compressed and full of digital artifacts, and Denis, when he likes the effect, faithfully reproduces them. It's actually quite amazing. I've worked with digital image formats for years and have a very good eye for picking up certain features, so when I looked at Denis' Journey of a Thousand Nights, I was astonished to see what was clearly JPEG compression artifacts in the background grass. I wouldn't have believed anyone could reproduce them by hand, but Denis has.
As I mentioned earlier, though, Denis doesn't just reproduce photos. In fact one of my biggest questions was, "Why paint a painting which could be a photo?" Denis' answer involved some handwaving, but in the end it all comes down to the basic premise of art: That an image filtered through the mind of an artist has a value over a mechanical reproduction. The photos from which he works, Denis says, are just part of what he uses to create his paintings. Many details are added by his imagination; elements are emphasized, some are removed entirely. In Waterfront, the original photo had families posing in the foreground; Denis didn't put them in his painting. He's very conscious of the art involved in composing his images. He's very thoughtful regarding things like facial detail -- "I left these undefined because I wanted them to be timeless, like this scene is endless, just an endless line of women bringing firewood" -- and balance -- "I added this necklace because I wanted something detailed over on this side of the painting".

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