I’ve been admiring Peter E. Harper’s distinctive, linear paintings in various group exhibitions this summer (most recently at Porch Projects on Capitol Hill) and thought it was high time to meet the man behind the work. As it happens, Harper has recently relocated from the 52 O Street studio building to a row house steps from the Atlas Arts District in Northeast, and was keen to invite me over for a tour of his new workspace.
The demure façade of the row house doesn’t prepare the visitor for the visual assault of art just past the foyer. Large scale paintings line the walls of the living room and interior hallway. Smaller works line the stairs up to Harper’s second floor studio where the original master bedroom has been taken over by canvases and paint tubes. There’s a casual clutter that pervades the space. Perhaps its cliché, but I find a certain charm in a space that lives up to the poetic notions of an artist focused on painting rather than entertaining. Not surprisingly, Harper’s day also includes liberal doses of caffeine and nicotine as evidenced by the ashtray and coffee cup collection off to one side of the room.
Conversing with Harper immediately breaks down those stereotypes. Harper initially comes off as reserved and self-effacing, but becomes quite the conversationalist as our interview progresses. I was curious what effect the transition from a warehouse space with dozens of artists to private home studio had on his art. Surprisingly, he’s relishing the “insecurity” of not having immediate feedback or affirmation from his cohorts. Walking that line of insecurity – of not knowing the direction a particular piece will take – becomes spiritual in a way. Wondering if he’s bordering on something religious, I ask him to explain what he means by that. “Dealing with a level of self-doubt opens up something greater… outside of myself,” he states. Ironically, I detect an underpinning of self-confidence coming from an artist who’s learned to thrive on that insecurity.
That level of self-awareness only happens over time, so it is not surprising to learn Harper has been painting since the late 1990s. I most associate his style as having a complex weaving of line and color that adds an emotional uncertainty to the image, as if we’re watching an event play out through a coarse window screen. Looking over his oeuvre around the studio though, it is apparent that this is a transition his work has taken over only in last few years. Works painted in the mid-90’s have a more narrative-driven, less emotionally ambiguous feel to them. While telling a more straightforward story, these works certainly evidence emotional tightrope to which Harper alludes.
Take for example Cowboy Siren’s Disco of Death. An amalgamation of classic Greek fable and American “wild west” folklore, the painting shows the unlikely meeting of cowpokes with a floating apparition. While on the surface whimsical (a disco ball features prominently), the siren’s lack of facial expression is telling – is she friend or foe? Likewise, the nonexistent facial expressions on the cowboys mean we don’t know if they are enthralled, enchanted or enraged. Heightening this discord is Harper’s use of skewed perspective and proportion, as seen in(girl floating in the room). This visually turbulent painting turns a squared room circular, upends the floor and ceiling and leaves unanswered the question of whether she’s floating on air or being metaphorically suffocated.
I vaguely feel like I’ve socialized with these figures before, but like a good party the details are hazy afterwards. Then it hits me: I’m revisiting George Condo (minus the seriously wonky faces). This is not to say Harper is riffing off an art world contemporary – Harper’s figures stand on their own (he’s also not entirely comfortable with the comparison when I bring it up). Rather, like many contemporary artists, I think Harper is in his responding to a modern zeitgeist riddled with anxieties both personal and societal. Harper briefly touches on this when he discusses with me the ways in which artists incorporate or play with bits and pieces of past art movements that resonate with them. In Harper’s case, the “anything goes” ethos of postmodern painting comes across strongly in his work.
The incorporation of lines and their associated forms is an therefore an exciting turn of events, bringing a new, intriguing complexity to his work. For Harper, using the forms of line and grid as the basis of the tableau allows him to focus on his intuition and emotions rather than fall back on scholarly ideas or techniques. A good example of his newest approach to painting can be seen in Relationships (disappear), which features a couple obscured by layer upon layer of line. While the grid provides visual stimulation (“I like to look at complex things,” Harper states), it also erases all references to a visual plane (on a technical level) and storyline (on a narrative level). Complex they are, but what’s exciting (and new) is the way in which the painting encapsulates an emotional experience without the need to resort to narrative; in other words, the grid itself becomes the emotional hinge of the work. There is subtlety and a feeling of maturation to these works, as if he’s become more comfortable with that line of insecurity as it threads its way from brain to canvas. It is interesting to note too that this linear recontextualizing is not limited to portraiture, as evidenced by landscapes such as The Room is Ours, The Light is Us.
One of his newest paintings was casually sitting on the floor against one of the walls in the studio and I was taken by the juxtaposition of the vertical and horizontal bands of color. When he told me the title, The Party Dirge, my mind went immediately to the concept of a “talking head” and I wondered aloud if this was an allusion our current political climate. Harper insisted politics was not on his mind when he painted it, but was intrigued that took that tack, stating that, “making work that makes you think about stuff is so important today”. Ponder I did, and I left Harper’s studio feeling like I (and the rest of DC) have only seen tip of the iceberg.
Author’s note: Peter recently contacted me, letting me know that several works featured in the article have been finished and/or re-worked. These new images are featured below, and will give the reader a fuller idea of the artist’s process.