The Shape of Love
A Provincetown Art Association and Museum show celebrates artist Jim Peters’s adoration of the female figure.
Looking at the work of Jim Peters, you can feel the heat. You are gazing at private moments. “Sensuality is important in my paintings,” says Peters.
The artist is the subject of a retrospective at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (PAAM), which runs June 28 through August 11, with an opening reception on July 19. The show is a powerful expression of Peters’ feelings, reflecting what he calls his “adoration of the female figure.” July 19 also marks the opening of an exhibition of his work at artSTRAND in Provincetown, which runs through August 7. The PAAM show will include about 20 works, spanning 30 years. The works define Peters’ intense devotion to specific images and his endless searching for new expression of those themes.
When Peters decided he wanted to be an artist—perhaps an unexpected fit for a man with degrees in atomic physics and nuclear engineering—he studied painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art and earned an MFA. He was a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown from 1982 to 1984. In 1985, he was selected for a “new faces” exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. He was one of nine artists out of a field of 2,000 selected for the Guggenheim’s 1985 show “New Horizons in American Art,” in which Peters exhibited 16 works. (One of those paintings, Reclining Figure, Jealousy, a nine-foot construction/painting, is in the Provincetown retrospective.) Although he now lives in North Adams, Massachusetts, Peters lived for many years in Provincetown and Truro. He is still connected to Provincetown, where he teaches and exhibits his work.
Peters is fully engaged when he talks, always animated, with a flashing smile and a hearty laugh. It is not surprising that this energy and dramatic sensibility spills over into his art. “I love the figure,” he says. “I love to construct compositions, spaces, human presences. I want to explore this relationship in its many perturbations, evolutions, and tensions. Although my subject may seem to remain constant, I use different materials, processes, formats to make my pieces, to cobble together my thoughts [with] paint, collage, wax, glass, wood, and photographs.”
His passion for painting the female figure has remained constant for the past 30 years, but the materials he incorporates into his work have changed. His work, he says, has to do with the “tension” between a man and a woman in a confined space, and also the tension and energy he creates on the surface of the canvas. There is always a lot going on in Peters’ work, which explores the intimacy and the private lives of his subjects. The paintings may have two nude, or partially clad figures in the composition. If it includes only one subject, Peters says, “I, the painter, or the viewer become that second person.”
In addition to provocative and sometimes mysterious images, which lead you into what he calls “small, almost claustrophobic rooms,” and sometimes onto rumpled beds, are his robust, often gritty, surfaces and the materials he adds, which multiply the tension of the image. As for that tension, he says, it may sometimes just be narrative. But the surface of the painting must also be activated. Using canvas stretched over plywood, he has a hard surface, onto which he can sand, cut, scrape, and add a photograph and cover it with glass. His interest in integrating photographs into his art has occurred over the last five years as he and his wife, Kathline Carr, work together on the photos.
Peters doesn’t use brushes, preferring spackle knives, palette knives, and his fingers; the surface of his work is robustly textured. He may also add a real object, as in Shrine of the Annunciation, into which he inset tomato paste cans to shape a lighthouse. That creates a tension between the three-dimensionality of the cans and the illusionistic three dimensions in the painting.
“When I start a piece I have no idea where it will go. I use no photos or preliminary drawings or models,” he says. The paintings are “evolutionary. I don’t work from a source. I work totally out of my head. Every day I go into the studio, I may have a different feeling. I may be happy, may be sad. There are a lot of different feelings.”
Peters doesn’t require a model to capture the accurate lines of a figure. “If you’ve been drawing figures for 40 years,” he says, “you can do it out of your mind. I enjoy working out of my head.” But he adds, all his figures are “basically [my wife] Kate, although they don’t always look like her.” The process, he adds, “is very fluid. Usually most of my paintings start with a female figure. But that particular pose is rarely in the painting at the end.” He may move the figure around, change it to a male figure, add another female figure. He thinks of the painting like a film, a motion picture. And, he adds, with excitement in his voice, “When it starts to gel, it’s like a freeze-frame.”
The oldest large piece will be Reclining Figure, Jealousy. The newest large piece will be the 2009 Whose Dream is This, an eight-by-10-foot painting. Sea Barn, which Peters calls, “the ultimate mixed-media piece,” includes a photograph and a sculpted figure.
“The painting is a dialogue between itself and me, and it shifts and alters according to my response to the emotions I feel or want to express, and the aesthetics that evolve out of the process,” he explains. Despite the changes in style and materials, Peters’ provocative images continue to capture the age-old tensions and dynamics between the sexes.
Debbie Forman is a freelance writer specializing in stories on art and the author of the recently published book, Cape Cod Artists: Images of Land and Sea.