Alexander Stille on Cornices

For those who have followed his career from the beginning, Peter Begley’s latest series of paintings – Cornices – with their recognizable glimpses of the boulevards and architecture of Haussmann’s Paris — is something of a surprise.

During most of his artistic life, Begley has been a rigorously abstract painter (and sculptor) operating very much within the non-representational, modernist tradition that came to dominate American art after World War II. His chief preoccupations were shape and form and color. The paintings established a relationship with the material world by being themselves very visibly material objects with their heavily layered, mottled and raised surfaces, the result of the artistic process that Begley elaborated over many years and which has crystallized in the past decade. Working on paper, he first coats the surface with two layers of acrylic binder mixed with plaster and pigment, but not mixed too finely, so as to create a rough, scored and bumpy surface. On this base, Begley then creates his forms with a fat greasy oil crayon over which he then rubs on a layer of oil paint following by a final patina of wax. This highly material process created an interesting tension with the abstraction of Begley’s work, the play and geometry of shapes and colors taking us out of the world into one of ideal forms while the physicality and intentional imperfections of the paintings’ surfaces pull us back into the material world.

The series of paintings that immediately preceded the Cornices – Laundrylines – represents an interesting moment of transition. Quite literally paintings of the ubiquitous lines of laundry hanging from almost every Italian window and across almost every Italian street, this series allowed Begley to have it both ways, to be figurative and abstract at the same time. The shapes and colors of articles of clothing hung from straight (or sagging) lines were naturally occurring geometries. Without knowing the title of the series, an innocent viewer might well have failed to grasp their representational value, an homage to the quotidian beauty of the Rome where Begley lived for twenty years just at the moment that he was preparing to leave it.

In the Cornices, Begley has crossed clearly over the line into representational work, offering us a series of impressions of 19th century Paris, seen through a 21st century eye, with its panoramic views, its balconies and rows of windows. Clearly, it is an attempt to take in and digest the new environment in which he has chosen to live and also reflects a strong interest in perspective and in architecture, with its three-dimensionality. It is hard not to see some of Begley’s intense interest in Italian art and architecture finding its way into this work – the temple form in Cornice tryptych n. 4 ( the neo-classical church of Notre Dame de Laurette) – as if he were seeing Paris through a memory of Rome. At the same time, Begley continues to work through the same artistic process. But now his rough, mottled surfaces produce a very different, almost opposite effect. While in the past, Begley’s modus operandi served to make the abstract real and material, here it has the opposite effect, lending an element of abstraction to this highly representational work. By calling attention to the surface, through the willful imperfection of the scored canvas, the broad strokes of the wide paint stick, the work calls attention to itself as painting and as form.

Alexander Stille, New York, 2006