Profound and powerful, and I’m not just talking about his work, Denis Peterson is way out there. We had the honor of featuring him November of last year and recently we got to interview him. And yes, reading this WILL make you smarter, you better not even think I’m over exaggerating because I’m dead serious. I took an IQ test before and after this interview and my score went up by eleven points. - Empty Kingdom
EK: How did you choose your subjects for your work that focuses on the homeless and poor? Can you tell us about Vortex, how did you approach the composition for the piece? How did you find him? How did you approach him to ask for a photo?
DP: The Wall was a compilation of works based on photos I took in New York. However, they were not merely shots carelessly taken from afar. Most were the product of meeting and speaking with the subjects, then photographing them in a context with the understanding that I was going to paint them. Not every homeless person was a potential subject. I had to feel a connection and usually it worked out well. Whenever I painted disadvantaged subjects, it had to feel right or I would drop the work midway through. If the visual statement was right, it would undergo numerous concomitant transformations throughout the painting process.
Vortex was an unusual situation. I was crossing the street when I spotted this colorful character dancing through traffic. At first I felt that he was too flamboyant to cooperate with a posed session and instead chose to shoot him from afar. He quickly approached me and confronted me with the challenge to photograph him for money. Of course I agreed, but first wanted to talk and get to know a little more about him. He didn’t know where to stand and seeing the fortuitous granite wall I asked him to step back against it. The Vornado real estate sign was far off to his left as I recall. Although I observed the patron in the adjacent restaurant, I didn’t take note of the impending anomaly. As I took my photos, I didn’t notice him pulling the bottle out of the bag.
Back at the studio, I determined to crop the lower half of the photo that I chose to use as the reference, and “moved” the ostentatious Vornado sign into the composition in order to emphasize the social contrast. To achieve a contiguous painting, I needed to incorporate a related color pattern within the restaurant, which became its own composition as to the illusion of lighting effects and reflections (many that were not there in the original photos.) I regarded the young patron as a perfect representation of New York culture and society which surrounds the subject and his self imposed exile from it.
When my daughter saw the painting, she almost fell over. Apparently she had photographed him some ten years earlier, still wearing black makeup and twisted newspapers in a crown.
EK: The blue trash bag in Cardboard Dreams is particularly amazing in its lifelike nature, can you tell us about the process of painting it, particularly the lines made from the outward pressure of the cans within the bag?
DP: Yes, the blue bags were a combination of laying the folds in with watercolor pencils over thinned down acrylics (actually polyvinyl house paint) and then glazing varied shades of blues and whites in successive airbrush applications. To get the graduation of densities, I used bendable refrigerator magnets to create the illusion of sharp to dull edges by pulling the magnet away at differing lengths from the canvas during the sprays. Most of the lines are fictitious based on one or two which were there to begin with. They helped to create a volume of space and tenseness that accentuated both the physical and psychological postures of the subjects while at the same time providing a visual relief from the darker surrounding areas behind it.
EK: Of the three galleries The Wall appears to be a study of homelessness; Walkin’ NY of advertising, particularly large scale billboards and posters; the unnamed third series seems to be hyperrealistic Americana. Is there a particular idea or message you’re trying to achieve through this comparison of American society? What response do you imagine or hope your audience to have when these three galleries are viewed beside Don’t Shed No Tears?
DP: At once, the four galleries each celebrate and condemn. They all are painted as iconic symbols of human greatness and a concomitant loss of direction. Kind of Yin and Yang to some extent where they capture hope and innocence in varied comparative contexts. Sadly, there are no winners or losers, just an axiomatic isolation of the human spirit. As I had no axe to bear in any series, I created them as aesthetic compositions that might strike a chord with the viewer. Hopefully they raise more questions than answers.
The disconnect arises when Don’t Shed No Tears is viewed as a consciousness raising experience, rather than as an aesthetic of the indomitable human spirit. So I see the four series in a matrix as hyperrealism, the simulacra that we create and believe as reality, when in fact it is all an illusion of reality.
If we view Don’t Shed No Tears merely as a consciousness raising series on genocides, we really deny both our complicity and our generosity… if these are our abandoned brothers and sisters, why are we so damned complacent about it? Perhaps my amusement park painting, Wacky Shack, would offer more answers to us while we found comfort inside the shack anesthetized by our cotton candy.
EK: Can you tell us about the motivation behind Don’t Shed No Tears? Where were the photos that the paintings are based on taken? How did you come across them?
DP: Sure. The truth is that I was initially interested in painting subjects with more interesting and cultured clothing, appearances, etc. As I began to explore other cultures, it was like “oh no you don’t, look here instead and don’t deny yourself”. So with that abrupt turn in the road, my attention turned to atrocities in Haiti, Darfur, Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Armenia and ultimately Cambodia. I began to read as much as I could find on current genocides and wrote to authors, photographers, humanitarian groups, genocide museums, universities and yes, even the UN. In Cactus Flowers, for example, I was provided photos of murdered political prisoners and information through the Yale Genocide Project, and ultimately by the Cambodian Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. The only known photo of their executioner was provided by a Time-Life photographer who accidentally discovered him hiding in the jungles of Cambodia. He has since been arrested and prosecuted.
Although the focus was on refugees, war prisoners and genocidal victims, my motivation was to bring attention not to their suffering, but to their indomitable spirit. In this way, I could approach each painting as a celebration of life. It allowed me the freedom to frame each composition in an aesthetic in order to sustain a respectable body of work in the genre of hyperrealism. By connecting art with an alternate illusion of reality, the visual statement was effectively transformed into a mesmerizing depiction of the human condition while maintaining its integrity as a contemporary painting that by its very nature would draw attention to itself.
EK: How much time do you spend on naming each piece? “Imagine there is no Heaven” is both a poignant name and a striking piece, can you tell us about it? Where was the photo taken? What were you feeling emotionally when you painted it? What were you feeling when you named it?
DP: I spend a lot of time thinking about titles, kind of like picking out the most appropriate wheels for a sports car. I would jot down notes as I painted, often thinking about songs that were in concert with the work, and playing them as I painted to get a better sense for their compatibility.
Imagine there is no Heaven, of course was written by John Lennon. It seemed to just fit and came to me midway while painting the mother and daughter wandering from one (flooded) refugee camp to another in Darfur during the height of the still ongoing genocide. I knew that the oppressive government backed regime was continually chasing down these peaceful people, poisoning their wells and kidnapping their children from the camps. I wanted to depict solitude, hope and strength in both the title and the painting without creating a conclusive narrative or anything akin to a photojournalistic or jaded editorial point of view.
I knew that this suffering was the suffering of mankind, and felt the desperation, the terror and the hope all at once. With so many husbands murdered, women raped and children brutally tortured, it would not take much imagination to dismiss heaven. By the same token, the sky and the evident love between the two subjects carrying their only belongings on their heads, hopefully suggest the possibility of heaven on earth for them one day soon.
EK: A lot of the pieces in your Don’t Shed No Tears series have names that discuss death, hard times and suffering, yet the name of the series is contradictory, is there some greater meaning in this contradiction? Is there an underlying message of the series? If yes what is it?
DP: When I painted Don’t Shed No Tears, the signature piece for the series, I could not come to terms with a suitable title. During a break from painting, my wife suggested it should have something to do with tears, but that still did not get me any closer to a solution. Frustrated, I walked back into my studio, where my radio was playing Bob Marley singing the words Don’t Shed No Tears in his song No Woman, No Cry!
So that one was given to me, no doubt about it.
That said, I see the title (for the series), albeit contradictory, as "Don’t feel sorrow, it’s too late for crying about it. Do something. And if you won’t or you can’t, then don’t fear for me, as I will survive. And if I don’t survive, I will live on forever." The series is the mirror of mankind. Look at it and see yourself, who you are. When you see yourself, and love what you see, you can be free to relate to others in a new way.
EK: Can you tell us about some of the ideas you’ve had while painting the The Wall as well as the "Don’t Shed No Tears" series? They both focus on impoverished situations, however one is in America while the other is not, do you believe there to be a difference in the poverty in the two situations? Were the series different (emotionally and artistically) for you?
DP: In both I would be constantly thinking about the individuals and their particular plights. I also pondered how I would feel in their situations, what kind of person I was by comparison, human strength, loss of dignity, cultural oppression, etc. However, in America, the plight is abject poverty and social disenfranchisement. The artistic drive was to present them compositionally as portraits that would create a tug between their situations and the aesthetic of each motif. Certainly, a new dichotomy would arise once viewers were to appreciate the aesthetic and be left to ponder how they could admire a subject who in a physical setting would likely be passed by without a second thought. This is the hyperrealism of the dilemma.
Don’t Shed No Tears, on the other hand, is survival under dire circumstances. It does not deal with poverty, but the impoverished. These are people who by no fault of their own have been singled out for brutality and death at the hands of evil regimes who continue unabated. It is strictly life and death, not merely quality of life. It is the extreme of surviving the evils of hatred and classism, of corrupt governments and self involved politicians, of courage and oppression, kindness and brutality. My approach with them was entirely different. The attempt was to engage the viewer in their situation through a heightened sense of verisimilitude and the illusion of surmountable distance.
Some of the genocide works were painted while literally weeping for the subjects. Not easy ones to paint by any means. Abandoned for example was based on a then three year old in Ethiopia who witnessed his mommy being carried away into the jungles by inhumane soldiers. The title of the painting is the name his cousins gave him. I tried to get there to arrange bringing him back with me, but was stopped due to war.
The two series differed as much artistically, as they did emotionally where I found myself somewhat less concerned in the latter series with broader compositional dynamics and more with specific details in the paintings that would transmute into definable visual messages.
EK: How have viewers responded to your work? Are there any memorable responses or comments that come to mind?
DP: I get over two million visits on my site every year. Many viewers who have contacted me, or whom I have spoken with at shows, are largely artists or art lovers. Virtually all are deeply appreciative of subjects, style and aesthetics. They have responded with strong connections to my work, inspired to work harder, and usually attached to one or two particular pieces as personal favorites. Some have indicated that they were changing their points of view regarding the disenfranchised; others have actually changed their way of working in art accordingly, either by taking up more significant subjects or by altering their styles. I have, of course, seen the other side of things in the vast universe of internet comments. There, I have seen a large majority of viewers feeling empowered and intrinsically changed by their connection to my work. And then there is always the uninformed minority of art detractors who glibly feel that a camera can do the same thing that takes months of hard work to create.
On more than one occasion, I have had painter friends come over from the UK, Canada and even LA to meet me in the city, only to find that they had literally bumped into my subject in Vortex. Their immediate response ultimately led each of them to momentarily think they were caught in the middle of a Denis Peterson painting! Another artist recently commented that Vortex was like a deposed African king caught up in an urban jungle under the reign of a consumer society.
EK: Can you tell us about what’s next for you? What are your plans for the rest of the year? What about next year?
DP: I have been developing a mini-series based on a signature work: smaller works concentrating with variations on a common theme. As to hyperrealism, I have been working on a book and entertaining possible plans for starting a school. Plans for this year include shows in the US, Paris, Zurich and Hong Kong. Shows carry over into next year as well and I am scheduling several commissions to paint, including one displayed on the ceiling of a public museum.