“I like a clean, stable, uniform atmosphere”
When I last wrote about Peter Beston, he was almost finished with the series Palm Beach Stories, five paintings inspired by 350 photos taken during a drive on Florida’s South Dixie Highway. Each stark, yet emotive work signifies a cinematic genre and is named after, though doesn’t depict an actual film: Deep Impact=Disaster, While You Were Sleeping= Romance, When Worlds Collide= Science Fiction, Out of the Past= Noir, The Awful Truth= Farce. Today, we walk through his new exhibition, concentrating on some of the new work.
As with all Beston’s art, an idea is followed by extensive research and the selection of dozens and dozens of photos. These are put together and adjusted in Photoshop until powerful essence is achieved. Color, source of light, weather, even wind effects. A large print is made, gridded, and scaled up onto canvas before any piece receives oils.
The Awful Truth, he tells me, interprets nature against development. The alligator has been swimming around a lake in a condo development across the street from “this garish diner.” (Beston and his husband saw this occur at the place they were staying) It’s now returning to an out of sight swamp. The car- “Anywhere in Florida, there’s a yellow Camero behind you…this boy was getting out, saw the alligator, lost his bottle as we say in England, and bolted.” Everything has a story.
Trivializing the importance of wildlife in cartoon signage rides tandem with a primal beast. “My point is we should be more respectful. Before people arrived, these creatures fit into the ecology.” The alligator and its extraordinary foreshortening is a result of multiple images. You can see from several iterations how surrounding vegetation, positioning of major elements, clouds, and even shadows change.
Before we go on to additional new work, I notice Out of the Past, which appeared in the artist’s last exhibition. Something is different. Eighteen months after it was completed, Beston apparently decided to eliminate the figure of a woman he felt ultimately weakened the effect of silence and oppression. “It was quite tricky. I had to sand and repaint the whole area.”
Beston is hyper aware of composition. He constructs work almost architecturally, as if 3-d weight and balance were as present as light, texture, and even one’s path. As that shifted, the painter found he had to add another window and remove a bush. (Greenery had originally been augmented to impose claustrophobic feeling.) The manufactured street sign points out disparity between sweetness of the names and reality. Wind was also added.
In Beston’s mind, the woman had been holding a gun behind her. There are skid marks on the curb you may not see in reproduction here that imply hasty departure. Placing the pistol on the ground was the solution. Nothing more is needed to conjure a tale. I also notice a tiny drain hole in the side of the curb. This both defines dimension and works as a kind of reality check- life never being perfect. Looking for these in Beston’s work is akin to searching for one of Hirschfeld’s Ninas.
The artist has created a number of canvases featuring birds. Still Life with Orioles began with a photograph of tulips taken at his former Manhattan apartment. “They were three-quarters over and had this incredible wild shape.” The color of the blooms dictated bird type; mood somewhat suppressed color. Beston knows where both birds are looking and what they see.
Dissatisfied by lack of complexity, he first added a black and orange caterpillar, then a bracelet of black and orange stones bottom right before settling on another oriole. “I needed something alive, a heartbeat down there.” Note how the empty space here works as glue holding the configuration together.
Abrasha in Port-au-Prince arrived by way of desire to paint a scene in a very hot environment. Beston wanted to use fin de siècle architecture, so the building came first. His photo archive turned up what we see singling out locale. A strong period figure was needed next. Abrasha, it turns out, was a friend of his grandfather. Expression morphed until Beston reached what he describes with satisfaction as “on the cusp of nice and nasty.” Two other figures emerged for balance. Leaves at the steps’ edge offer a small bit of signature mess. Heat rises almost from this desolate image. It might be a Graham Green novel or an Orson Welles film.
The exhibition’s centerpiece is The Art of Conflict (4’ x 8’). On the left, we see Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano portraying the victory of Florentines over Sienese in 1432. This part of the original triptych is owned by London’s National Gallery where Beston grew to appreciate it. Its other two sections are housed in The Louvre and The Uffizi.
Like Beston’s own work, nothing inessential is included. Composition is meticulous, chaos under control. Color is clean. Flags and limbs are intact. There’s no sign of dirt, dust, or blood, not a single shadow. Anything on the ground floats in space.
Wondering how knights wore ridiculously high and heavy headdresses in battle, the artist investigated discovering both these and depicted livery (not armor) on horses were, in fact, worn only for jousting. “They’re almost carousel horses in a scene of war.” We’re looking at a romanticized, rather surreal version of the event.
To the right in the painted museum is Beston’s Riot, a composite of nationalities and racial types fighting one another in the cradle of civilization. It’s neither a particular country nor a specific enemy. The man raising his hand towards the front is making, Beston says, a useless gesture, part calling for help, part instinctively acting protective.
“This painting is about violent reality tuned into art. The issue to me is that we can bash each other up, make it into art, then just think about the art.” Instead of reminding us of the futility of savage force he seems to be saying, we’re once removed, protected, forgetful. If we get acclimated to newspaper photos and distanced from violence in art, must one’s neighbor be shot to comprehend the pointlessness of war?!
Utterly in control of his artwork, Peter Beston often renders upheaval and impotency. The Art of Conflict spells it out, but most every other picture suggests its presence just beneath the surface. As I ended my last article, the work is skilled, imaginative, unconventional, scrupulous, and captivating. It deserves to be exhibited in Manhattan.
All photographs courtesy of Peter Beston
The show, now closed took place at: MM Fine Art 4 North Main Street Southampton, NY Catherine McCormick- Principal Director Andrew Marcelle- Director Inquiries: https://www.peterbeston.com/