Peter H. Begley’s new series of paintings explores the tension between the actual and the possible that has been at the heart of his work all along. Building upon the patterned embodiment of his earlier abstractions, these latest works launch themselves into new territory – a dialogue with the figurative that, in its departure, anchors us in the astonishment of arrival. The result is a vibrant suspension between two realms, whereby what is seen commingles with how it is seen, the fleeting becomes the real, and the image is remade, reinvigorated, given good weight by the artist’s surface runes.
For whether it be the backs of heads caught in a passing, yet studied glance, the mystery of a stiletto heel suspended in space, or a still life captured and emboldened by the arbitrary dimensions that surround it, the literal is replenished by the imagined in Begley’s work. Central to this event is his use of color, a tonal quality in the reds, oranges, blues and greens that plies the object with a weather feeling that is at once conjured and observed. In addition, the broad workings of the surface inspire an uncanny sense of volume in their texture, such that the figures themselves inhabit their spaces, literally embody them, remaining immersed and yet emerging in all their potent being.
Nowhere is this tension between surface and subject more pointedly risked than in Begley’s series of predominantly ‘white’ paintings. Here the bold outlines of the backs of heads against the potential vacancy of the background sets up a drama in which each nuance of color, shade and texture must manifest the figure’s inner life, but in a manner that is slant, unadorned, fleeting, yet immediate and seen. The result is a ‘modeled’ subject, rather than the subject as model, for Begley’s figures live as much in the heft and folds of paint as in the space that surrounds them, the artist’s outward appreciation of surface and shape remaining the catalyst that, ironically, awakens their inner life as it passes and is gone.
In his edgy playfulness, and in the dynamic at work between surface and depth in his paintings, Begley erases the line between vision and sensibility, providing instead a mien, a plane of regard, both atmospheric and meditative. Nothing of the moment’s ‘moment’ escapes this artist, for these paintings recognize the permanence of the illusory as arbiter of what is truly seen, experienced, and known. In this manner, his work stands as a kind of elegy to the future, embracing what passes in order that it become. As viewers, we stand the better for it, consumed and liberated, poised between sight and the articulation of the felt and seen, surprised by a kind of innocent joy suspended within a mercurial wisdom.
The final habitation of these paintings knows no bounds. Their shape-shifting pursuit of the ethereal made manifest in the portent of a gesture figures as an extended testimony to art’s unswaying demand and gift: to know the day more deeply; to deliberate on the given and the unknown inherent to its meaning; to celebrate its bracing charm
Peter Filkins, is the author of a book of poems, What She Knew, and the translator of predominantly Bachmann’s collected poems, Songs in Flight.