Nicole Büsing and Heiko Klaas in conversation with the painter Peter Churcher
Peter, before becoming a painter you studied music. What made you switch from the field of performing arts to fine arts?
Peter Churcher: It was really the other way round. I was always a painter and at the age of 15 I discovered and devoted my energies to music. I took music as far as graduating from a music conservatorium, majoring in piano and musicology. At that point (aged 22) I made my first trip as an independent young person to Europe and started seriously revisiting painting again, visiting all the major art museums. I was actually standing in front of Manet’s little painting ‘La Lecture’ in the Musee D’Orsay when I had my road to Damascus moment and was struck by the powerful memory of what it felt like to make a painting. I walked out of that museum that afternoon resolved to return to the practice of painting. Within a few months I was back home and enrolled in a school of fine arts majoring in painting.
You studied art in Melbourne. Can you tell us a little bit about the academy, your teachers and other early influences that where important for your formative artistic education? (We read that your mother played quite an important role in the Australian art world. Maybe you could elaborate on that as well...)
PC: By the time I entered art school in Melbourne in the late 80’s a “painting department” was really that by name only and any traditional forms of painting training were regarded redundant and the pursuit of realist painting most certainly frowned upon. I remember how starkly contrasted my art school training was to that of my earlier musical studies. At the music conservatorium one started at the beginning. For the first year we were only allowed to work on technical studies and etudes. The ethos being that if you wanted to play Beethoven you had to deserve that right and have the technical tools well under your belt. Art school, by contrast, was a situation whereby we were more or less left to our own devices in our own space, called “artists” without even really knowing what that meant and expected to “make art” which would then be overviewed and criticised by professors passing by. I remember truly struggling with getting anything remotely satisfying to happen on the canvas and feeling completely in the dark with regards to materials, techniques etc. For this reason I have always described myself as a “self-taught” artist. I never received any formal kind of training in painting and had to work it out as I went along. I remember teaming up with other colleagues who had similar interests, needs and we would pour over art books and reproductions of the past masters. We were obsessed how these paintings were simply made. To us it felt like discovering a classical marble sculpture which had been smashed into small pieces and trying to refit all the tiny pieces back into something coherent.
Of course I had the advantage, however, of my parents in this regard. Both were trained painters, my father was a student from the Slade School of painting in London and my mother from the Royal College of Art, London. Both had caught the tail end of the traditional academic method at these schools and both went on to be practitioners. My father always remained a painter but my mother veered towards Art history, writing and teaching when I was a young child, putting the paintbrushes and canvases aside. My mother went on to become the first female director of the National Gallery of Australia, a writer of many art publications and a well-known presenter of Art programmes on TV in Australia. Both my parents were instrumental in forming my understanding of painting from the earliest age. I was taught to look at a drawing by Pisanello and compare it to drawing by Gericault and understand the difference, what they were each trying to say and do as drawings. In later years I had a particularly close relationship with my mother in terms of her guidance and tutoring me in my painting and without her help I could not have become the painter I am today.
So I was very lucky in this respect to at least have the benefit of my parent’s knowledge and wisdom guiding me through the bewildering maze that was the contemporary approach to art training in art schools in the 1980’s.
Your paintings are figurative and realistic. In which tradition do you see your artistic approach?
PC: Well, as I’ve touched on above, it has always been my intention to make the practice of realist painting as vivid and alive and relating to my own contemporary world as any artist from any other period. I have consciously chosen to avoid the purely conceptual aspect of art making and find within the conventional act of painting a language that allows me to speak and shape my perceptions of the physical world I inhabit.
Which historic and/or living artists have been inspiring for you?
PC: I’m really most taken with the great climax of tonal realist painting that occurred from the early to later 17th Century under the hands of masters such as Velázquez, Rembrandt and Caravaggio. Here the painterly quality of painting reaches its most sophisticated. Not a painstaking attention and realisation of reality, but a loose and expressive method that reveals reality with a metaphysical and dramatic power.
One of your preferred subjects, at least of the recent paintings, is the (predominantly male) nude. What drives your interest in the unclothed body?
PC: So I have always shied away a bit from the female nude. Not for any particular sexual inclination or preference on my part, but because I find it a precariously clichéd and loaded subject in the language of painting. The tendency in works from the past to present the female nude as an object of desire, something to be ogled by the male spectator, does not sit well with me. The male figure, however, I find much less loaded with connotation and cliché. I am not trying to pretend, however, that there is not a powerfully sexual and arousing quality in the male nude figure. In fact, I push this aspect. I just find it much less contrived and “tricky” than the depiction of the female in a similar way.
When you paint a naked person under the shower, how do you do it practically? Do they really take a shower during the whole painting session? Or do you let them take a short shower and just take photographs or make sketches before you start to paint?
PC: Good question and one I had to work out by trial and error. Obviously one cannot expect a model to stand under running water for the time it takes to execute a large scale canvas. Nor can a large scale canvas be physically erected and worked on in the confines of a bathroom, not my bathroom at least! The problem was, however, that I could not simply just rely on taking photos. As I said before, a key factor of my work is that it does NOT strive for a photo-realist attention to detail, but find a painterly quality that encapsulates all the realism of the “appearance” of the running water without the stultifying effect of slavishly rendering the photographic image.
So the answer was executing smaller scale studies with the model under the shower. The smaller scale of the studies allows me to comfortably work within the confined space of my bathroom and also work rapidly, observing what I see going on the shower and finding ways of translating it onto the canvas in paint in a very direct “in the moment” way. These studies executed in the bathroom are terribly important in terms of working out exactly how one paints such a challenging subject but also to see an actual person reacting to the falling water, how they move, the gestures they take on whilst standing under the shower.
So all the works in the shower series began with a study like this. Not all studies go on to become larger, finished works. Some are just stepping stones on the path to discovering the challenges of this painting subject.
The steady flow of water on the naked skin can make a person feel very relaxed and comfortable or even quite uncomfortable, depending on circumstances like temperature and duration. From your experience: What makes the difference between a „dry“ and a „wet“ painting session?
PC: So if I understand this question exactly . . . how is it different working with a model whilst standing under falling water as opposed to just a normal session out of the shower without the water?
So, Ok, there are lots of factors that make the whole experience of working from life with a model in the shower much more difficult and challenging than a standard pose with the model in the studio. Anyone who has ever sat for any time for an artist knows it is quite difficult enough just holding a pose, even the most basic one. A weight on a leg, or the twist in the neck can become a challenge to hold. Everything becomes so much more tricky for the model when there is the added challenge of the falling water. The most simple and direct answer to this is that I just have to work very fast. I have very experienced and diligent models who are up for the challenge and hold the poses under the water extremely well. Despite this I need to work very fast to get the information down. So many factors get in the way . . . the room steaming up, the model showing signs of stress under the water. It reminds me of painting clouds racing across a sky when working ‘en plein air’ . . . you just have to trust your instincts, get it down and paint with 100% attention to the moment.
In the shower series you sometimes also make use of the (semi-)transparent material of the shower cabinet to modify the gaze. What is your motivation behind this painterly artifice? How would you describe the surplus value of this method?
PC: The added layer of the shower screen came later, after the first series of the figures under falling water were completed. It happened quite by chance during one particular session doing a study with a model. I moved my point of perspective and looked through the screen rather than straight at the figure. I immediately realised the screen offered a further layer of abstraction of the figure, a blurring effect which was sometimes uniformly right across the subject or at other times just blurring parts of the figure, other parts seen with clarity. A further attraction of the screen was the ephemeral nature of it, how much it changed, even over quite a short period of viewing. Like the clouds racing across the sky, which I mentioned earlier, nothing stays the same for long looking through the screen and one is forced to suspend ones desire to control and lock down the appearance of the figure. One must surrender this sense of control and “go with the flow”, accepting the shifting vagaries of the frosting glass, the water droplets and allow oneself the freedom to be playful with the painterly effects required to capture the feeling of what one is witnessing.
There seems to exist a considerable intimacy or at least familiarity between you and your models. How do you find them? Are they mostly friends, acquaintances or even family members?
PC: All my models are basically professionals, not friends or family, and paid by the hour. Having said that, I develop very particular working relationships with certain models and return to working with them over and over again. What develops over time is a very important understanding between each other and a certain sense of camaraderie that we are doing this together and is a joint effort. This type of working relationship is absolutely crucial for me, particularly when working under challenging circumstances such as the shower series.
You have left Australia and moved to Barcelona, Spain. What made you move there and in which respect did this relocation change your artistic approach?
PC: I came initially to Barcelona 15 years ago for a three month studio residency and then returned with my family two years later in 2006. 13 years later we are still here. As I have already mentioned, my work is very much based around the European tradition but, more importantly than that, there is a feeling in the air, a quality in the people and the life here in Europe which is much more conducive to my practice as an artist than anything I ever found in Australia. I am not a landscape painter. If I were I would probably have found a rich resource in my home country of Australia and never left. What I thrive on as a painter is the traffic of people in the streets, rich cultural diversity, a sense of past, history coming butt face-up in contrast with modern life . . . Europe provides me with much richer feeding grounds than Australia in these respects. As an artist in Australia I worked more isolated from my surrounding world, my studio was a bit of a bubble. In Barcelona, by contrast, I am continuously thrust out into the outside world and forced up against things which challenge me and inspire me to paint new and different things.
Peter, thank you very much for this interview.