Interview by Philippe Cuenat (2012) - English
Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it cannot.
Epictetus, The Enchiridion (XLIII, translated by Elizabeth Carter)
Philippe Cuenat: Some of your subject matter has remained almost constant for the last thirty years or so. Would you say your aesthetic, moral, political, and spiritual references are still the same?
Pedro Peschiera: That’s right, some of my subject matter hasn’t changed much. From the start, when I began developing an iconography I realized that there were some themes that were particularly broad, persisting, and useful for what I wanted to say, and that they would endure for a long time. The content of my work has not changed much either, since it offers depth and takes many forms – however, the range of motifs has widened and will continue to do so. Basically, I have sought to plough a broad and deep furrow, developing the concept of a family of paintings. At any event, until I feel that I have exhausted a particular form or feel the need, the compulsion and, in particular, the desire to use a specific theme, I will carry on doing so.
My aesthetic references have evolved. The influences of Romanesque architecture, early Renaissance painting and architectural geometrics have persisted as a basic structure, like a foundation.
Later I became passionate about 16th-century Venetian painting, the French and Italian landscape artists of the 17th century, and certain contemporary artists. Perhaps this does not yet come through clearly in my painting, but I think it is becoming visible in my treatment of colour. I think that for anyone who loves painting, the old Venetians will always hold currency. I look at them often, I find it essential for me to drink from the sources; in my case, things evolve slowly and almost always continuously and seamlessly.
At the beginning of the 1980s I gradually became agnostic. This was a very difficult but pivotal period for me. Naturally, my moral and political views shifted as a result. Actually, the Christian tradition left an indelible mark morally speaking but there was no longer that somewhat ascetic aspect of renouncement that had so attracted me previously. Politically, I have no fixed position. On some matters I can be conservative, on others, libertarian. I don’t like political correctness; I don’t like prevailing currents of thought in general.
Ph. C.: Your painting takes place within a mimetic space and yet that space does not really have anything to do with an effort to be naturalistic or realistic. Should we deduce that there is a fundamentally anti-naturalist stance within you? Does this perhaps originate from the fact that your work is constructed more than anything else on imitatio, as regards the old masters?
P.P.: During my childhood and adolescence in Lima my mother had a number of books on art at home. I was captivated by the reproductions of the paintings from the Renaissance to the 20th century. There were no museums housing any works by the great masters of Western painting. My first introduction to art was through reproductions of figurative works where mimesis and illusionistic space dominated.
Only a short time later I discovered Cubist painting, abstract art, medieval art, the Italian primitives—always in books, of course. My situation was much the same as most people in Lima. When I decided to become a painter, I had a vague idea of abstract painting but opted for a figuration that was more or less illusionistic. I say more or less because I loved Gauguin, Redon, Munch, Monet’s last period…
I always knew that I needed a subject matter or, at the least, a theme. The question of “pure” painting held no interest for me and I had absolutely no desire to pursue it. What attracted me, and still attracts me, is the theme in painting—not exclusively so when it comes to appreciating other people’s art, of course—, but as far as I am concerned, absolutely. For me, everything hinges on the art of ensuring that subject matter does not destroy the painting, that even though the subject is powerful, the painting must be even more so. This is a rich dialectic.
In spite of my interest in non-figurative and abstract art, it seemed to me—and still does—that figurative painting lends itself more to playing with the viewer’s perception and by manipulating how you represent things, you can lead them to a particular place, toward a particular poetic realm. It seems to me that there are infinite ways of modifying, of modulating, of heightening or diminishing the effects of illusionistic space, with the advantage that that space is set in a kind of terrain that is common to all; namely, that of mimesis or representation of appearances of the world around us.
It is fundamental to me that a painting has a general direction, however imprecise, before I start work on it – even though that direction may shift as I proceed. Of course, in my case, the direction is far from exclusively pictorial.
It might seem strange, but my interest in art or painting does not come directly from my life, from my experience of the world, or my observation of reality. More than anything, it is born from my passion for paintings themselves, be they very old, old, less old, or modern; a passion for that vast treasure handed down over the ages. Often, though, when I look at and admire them, I forget about their history, since to me that is not what matters most. Paintings I admire, whatever period they are from, are ones that genuinely stimulate me, both mentally and on a sensory level. At first, I find them terribly intimidating, but at the same time, above all, they give me an enormous urge to paint. I often think that I would have loved to have painted them… In my imagination I try to incorporate in my work the paintings that appeal to me, to make them mine; I’ve been doing that for a long time now and I still do it, even today.
Naturalism, realism, are not the right path for me: I am not drawn to rigorous observation, description, imitation of the world, or to the use of photography in the pictorial process. I always thought I was too subjective to be a realist. It is not a question of taste because I like realistic painting; it’s just that it’s not a path I want to go down. I have always needed to keep a kind of distance from reality. For example, the conception of space in the predellas of the Italian primitives, the early Renaissance painters, even that of the Mannerists, has had a profound impact on me.
The plausible but perfectly artificial and geometric space of Piero della Francesca has been fundamental for me, as have the distortions and false perspectives of the primitives, the tightly confined, flat, crowded spaces in some of Pontormo’s or Rosso Fiorentino’s paintings. I really appreciate reliefs where the contrast of the convex and the concave offset each other, all compressed together tightly in a narrowly constrained space.
There is, of course, an imaginary, subjective way of constructing illusory space. Using a closed space such as I use, with massive prominent volumes, heightened or foreshortened perspectives, arbitrary lighting, playing with scale, flat finishes or atmospheric degradés, and God knows what else… and all that without even counting colour… All these ways, all these possibilities for treating, manipulating illusory space prevent me from finding a fit with realism, even if I wanted to, since I find the urge to push things a little, to transfigure them, irresistible. It is part of a sense of freedom, of the possibilities I feel when I paint. It is as if I find my own elements there, a language to construct a world, a vision. I don’t think I’m an antirealist or an anti-naturalist. If the current prevailing trend were realism or naturalism, then things could be seen that way, to be sure, but I simply believe that it is impossible for me to be one or the other, sadly perhaps, since I love the landscapes of Courbet, of Corot, as well as Lucien Freud and the woodcuts of Franz Gertsch…
As regards the old masters, I like to see myself in a kind of time continuum. Why deprive oneself? Why exclude anything? I have always found the old and the not-so-old masters essential.
Ph. C.: Let me just stay with this point a little because I think it’s key to your relationship with painting and the issue of representation. You say that you haven’t been tempted by photographic reproduction, and yet it was through that medium that the issue of representation made a comeback, and with it, painting, after the formalist art of 1969-70. The other core thrust of the return to painting at that time took the form of primitivism, gesture, immediacy, the instinctive, but also of dreams of a violent and spectacular oneiric quality. This aspect of the return to painting belongs, like its more “conceptual” counterpart, to the context in which you were trained. Is the work of Cucchi, for example, or other artists of the Transavanguardia, with their schematization of space, their anti-naturalist references—particularly in their choice of colour, which appears to me to be a major characteristic of your work at the moment—resonate with you?
P.P.: Throughout almost my entire training in Lima, and later in Geneva, I only had a rough knowledge of what was going on in contemporary art at the time. As I came from far away, I observed all that with a certain distance and felt that it had little or nothing to do with me. In my case, my decision to paint was based on a rather approximate and general knowledge of art history that began with the Renaissance and ended at the end of the 19th century. I knew a little about the early avant-garde movements of the 20th century, but I was under the impression that they had been started by painters with a solid grounding and knowledge of painting and its history, and that they were reacting by making a break with tradition. That was not my reality at all.
I was interested in finding my way in a broader and, above all, richer history than one concerned exclusively with the avant-garde periods. It also seemed to me that the avant-garde movements were a particular branch of artistic creation that neither truly represented it as a whole, nor constituted its only relevant aspects. I knew a little about pop art but almost nothing about conceptual art, minimalism or other trends of the time. It was toward the end of my studies at art school and during my time at university that I learned a lot more about the importance of the contemporary avant-garde movements and about the limitations that they held, their norms and dogma; but by then my direction was set.
The issues of the avant-gardes did not inspire me as something to follow or as something which I needed to adopt a position on or explicitly represent in my work. The choices, processes and issues of the avant-gardes had little or no bearing on how I related to life and the world. As a result, my decision to paint, particularly figurative painting, had almost nothing to do with a reaction against the extreme formalism of preceding trends or with a reflection on the return to painting and representation brought about by photography, primitivism, neo-expressionism or the Italian Transavanguardia. For me it was never about placing spontaneous subjectivity in the foreground, whether by means of brushwork, fiery treatment of the pictorial subject, or a kind of personal mythology that would only tell my own story.
I think the clearest influences in my work are the “pittura metafisica” of Giorgio de Chirico, Romanesque architecture and also much of the Italian primitives and their space, which, precisely because of their ingenuity and freedom in terms of perspective, appeared “modern” in a plastic sense. I would also like to mention a Peruvian artist of Japanese descent, Tilsa Tsuchiya. She had a major influence on my painting. My interest in the quality of pictorial surfaces and my discovery of glazing came from meeting her and my admiration for her art. Then came Piero, Rothko and his somewhat atmospheric fields of colour.
Kiefer’s landscapes or the work Anish Kapoor touch me more than Enzo Cucchi (of whose work I have seen little) and others… I have also examined the fields of colour painted by Matisse and Brice Marden, the vibrant colour surfaces of Bonnard long before those of Cucchi. However, I have to admit that my painting and its space—even its colour—have something intrinsically Italian about them. It’s true that having brought my façades into the extreme foreground until they occupy almost the entire surface of the painting is a radical act—hyperbole of subject matter, an oversized object, which becomes a field of colour, the surface on which to be able to experiment with colour with ever greater intensity—, an act that could “look” very 20th century. In short, my work owes little to the art of the last fifty years. My aesthetic identity, my sensibilities, my personal affinities have prevailed over a more committed and more positive stance in terms of producing sheer novelty.
Ph. C.: Let’s briefly return to the question of colour. How do you see its role in your work? Could it not be said – somewhat provocatively – that it allows you to infinitely vary the appearance of a work that is constantly repeated?
P.P.: Once I had brought the façades and other motifs considerably closer to the foreground, I realized that would allow me to use large surfaces where colour could be applied in a more or less fragmented way to enhance its vibrancy. First I used very dark tones, seeking to distance myself, rather, from the lighter paintings that I had made previously in my formative period, which represented desert landscapes with architectures.
With time I grew in confidence, the tones gradually lightened and the colours intensified. Little by little, colour acquired great importance, although I did not use it in a pure or crude way. The colour is usually modulated by a large amount of glazing. The use of glazing on large surfaces gave me a glimpse of the enormous wealth of possibilities of colour. This slow and gradual treatment of colour now holds a kind of fascination for me and has become a land to be explored. The effects of depth, luminosity, intensity, and atmosphere that I can obtain interest me greatly. One can see the colour appear, ripen, and blossom. I also like “thinking up” colours before applying them to the canvas; I like to speculate about them and their interactions in my mind’s eye.
Another of colour’s attributes that is very important for me is its ever so profoundly sensory and emotive aspect. This isn’t the time to go on at length about the endless list of investigations, thoughts, or teachings on colour through the ages; its symbolism, and its psychological effects, etc. I am familiar with some of the founding texts, but it is enough for me to be aware of the extent to which colours have significant impacts that resonate within me: emotive, affective phenomena that lead to a kind of empiricism of enjoyment of colour. The pleasure, the enjoyment of painting were always an integral part of my work. At the same time, my painting is clearly not hedonistic and the concerns and direction of my work transcend mere pleasure. That is why I can afford to accentuate the sensorial aspect.
The colour in my painting has to do with seduction, with the desire to lead the viewer. Colour fills the iconic-conceptual structure—the motifs, subject matter, surfaces—with an intensity that transfigures it, precisely because it is not entirely realistic colour. This produces a sense of presence which has to do with how the colour has been applied; its fragmentation in an accumulation of small dabs produces density. That feeling of density also has to do with the perception of time, with its concentration in the plethora of superimposed layers, dabs and glazes that form the surface of my paintings.
The idea that my work repeats itself while always changing in appearance is an interpretation that I consider valid. It is a perfectly justifiable if impoverishing view. To reduce the work to that repetition would be a little sad. I have another outlook on things. From the outset, when I instituted the notion of a family of paintings, I had already taken the repetition aspect into account because I knew that some motifs would recur more or less continually over an undetermined period of time. As I said earlier, I originally conceived my work on the basis of families or groups of paintings interconnected by analogies of form or sibling concepts, with the result that several motifs might be revisited indefinitely.
I believe that colour has a fundamental influence on moods or states of mind. One of my Mantos in lemon yellow has little to do with another in golden yellow, for example. They are two separate sensory and affective realities. This variation, which might be anodyne to some, is for me intriguing, indispensable. Both realities ask, demand to exist! Each deserves to be its own complete reality, a painting in itself. Let us imagine, then, the effects of a blood-red Manto and compare it with the lemon yellow one. There we really are faced with two realities, two profoundly different experiences. The motif might be very similar or even the same, but how can we ignore it. Does the fact that the motif returns transformed in another sensory and emotional reality automatically mean that it is a repetition? Is it that simple? On the other hand, is a shift or variation in the subject matter, motif, or even theme, sufficient to speak of change?
In my opinion, colour has the power to influence the content of a painting. To some extent it can modify it, contradict or magnify it, for example (but, beyond words, of course), enrich it in some form or another. It is not there to act simply as “filling.” I maintain what I said at the beginning that until I find that a form has been exhausted and feel the need, urgency and, above all, the desire to use a particular motif or theme, I will continue to do so. In my case it is often as if the paintings were showing their need to be, their urgent desire to exist. The painting imposes itself on me, which plays in very well with my own urgency and desire. For me, it is as if this urgency and desire ensure that forms are not yet exhausted. It looks as if my work will always be the same, but one needs to realize that in painting appearance is all. If the appearance of the painting changes, then the painting changes with it.
Ph. C.: The colour and its decorative magnificence, its sensuality, aren’t they perhaps the first signs of a denial of history, of variation, of change? What would you say to those who claim that your work embodies the image of an ideal world without any reference to the “secular,” which would make it more like a utopian, anachronistic space whose main reference is religious?
P.P.: I don’t think that either the magnificence or the sensuality of colour are necessarily solely decorative. The colour isn’t there just to give pleasure. There is nothing to stop colour having a more complex and deeper dimension than simply superficial pleasure. Perhaps it all depends on the intentions that motivate it and what the painter does with it.
However, to return to your question, while it may be true that my work makes no direct or explicit reference to our timeframe, that does not mean that it is devoid of any trace of our times.
My paintings could not have existed in another period. They suggest an implicit human presence since almost all the images/motifs depicted are man-made objects (façades, bowls, boats, etc.) and their representation—perhaps because of the lack of mediation—play a dramatic or theatrical role where the viewer is concerned. These motifs draw the viewer into the painting, they seek him, question him; it is up to him to form an idea of their nature, of their possible meanings.
Although the constructions are reminiscent of Romanesque religious architecture, they suggest neither the function nor the nature of the buildings or façades. The architectures have become minimal. By assimilating certain contemporary trends, they have been secularized, purged, “modernized.” The reductionism and enlargement of the motifs that appeared in my work toward the end of the 1980s and aimed at achieving a more resounding impact on the viewer, coincided with my late discovery of the minimalist art of the 1970s. While not an influence per se, one might say that a certain formalism that was in vogue may have had a reassuring effect.
While it does not overtly bear witness to the era or the history of art of the last seventy years, my painting is a part of history and of its time. It is not utopian since it never sets itself up as an example or a model. If anything, rather, it is “atopian.” If my paintings were reality, strictly speaking they would be unbearable, unsuited for existence. They represent an ideal world in the sense that any structured scene or landscape in painting does, as does any abstraction or stylization of formal order. Piero is as ideal as Poussin or Mondrian, and Morandi, as ideal as Rothko.
My work in painting is a contemplative undertaking. It uses references that allude to the ancient and the sacred; it uses a slow and elaborate technique which presupposes a desire to live our time more slowly. It does not surprise me that some perceive it as anachronistic. As modern or postmodern Western individuals we have access to a truly vast store of artistic practices. Why not reactivate them? Why not harness them? The possibility of taking them and using certain fragments of that heritage that are still intelligible to us in order to talk about ourselves in this our time, could prove relevant and seems an entirely legitimate endeavour.
As for the religious issue, it is a bit of a cliché, but it touches on various aspects of our existence, and not just the fact of adhering closely or loosely to a particular doctrine or belief. Fundamentally, the problem is one of meaning, and any idea that implies the notion of quality or of ethics is to some degree an offshoot of that problem. I do not think that my painting makes references to religion in any strict sense. On a broad level—and leaving aside my agnosticism—one might say that there is a metaphysical or spiritual aspect to my work, even if only to the extent of its emptiness. To put it in a nutshell, perhaps the nexus is no more, but the trace lingers on.
Because of its connoting imagery, pictorial technique, and the amount of time and work that goes into each painting, my work alludes to the question of meaning, to the fact that meaning can seem inaccessible; it is underpinned by the notion of emptiness, of things waiting to be filled, by the absence of ultimate meaning, even by the absence of any meaning at all, full stop. In its own way, my painting stands as one of innumerable possibilities of living and making art in this century; however, it refuses to be a record of our times in a journalistic or sociological sense. It is, therefore, a really rather atypical case in our contemporaneity. I hope that there is still a place for it.
Ph. C.: Could that place be defined by your relationship to your “Peruvianness”? To put it another way, if you think the question pertinent, how would you define your position with respect to the art and history of your country of origin?
P.P.: It is certainly plausible, but the “place” I was thinking of, if you’ll forgive the presumption, would be in the context of art in general. The fact that I am Peruvian is always there; it is my foundation, it is part of what makes me who I am, but in an implicit, not explicit, way. I am aware of it, but really I hardly ever think about it.
It would be mainly in relation to the geographic location or the cultural history of my country that I could situate that “Peruvian-ness,” my “Peruvian-ness.”
The fact that I was born into a family completely Western in its culture and customs, in a country far from the great cultural metropolises, and which to some extent was—and still is—culturally dependent on them, illuminates an important aspect of my cultural identity.
In my childhood I had little exposure to Peru’s pre-Columbian or colonial art. At school we learned about the history of the pre-Inca and Inca cultures, as well as about the colonial era, but the emphasis was not so much on art. We were taught things from a slightly 19th-century Western viewpoint and pre-Columbian art was studied as something that was extinct, in the same way as Aztec or Egyptian art—an art and an aesthetic that had existed, whose cycle had run its course and whose time was up. That art was a relic of the past, of a non-Western culture that was no longer fully alive as it had been before the conquest.
Moreover, as we had almost no contact with modern art at school, we had no modern references such as Paul Klee, Albers or others who might have made us aware of the art of ancient Peru and shown us what there was to admire in it and recover from it. I realize that other artists’ experiences were very different to mine. I know people who had a very important, not to say essential, aesthetic contact early in their lives with either the pre-Columbian or the colonial art of Peru. Pre-Columbian art has left a profound mark on many important Peruvian artists.
In my case, the predominant model was the Western European or North American one, from where almost all of our culture came. I could say that my culture and my relationship to art was built with my eyes fixed on the Western metropolises, with Peruvian specificities left on the periphery. We shouldn’t forget that until the 1970s—I left Peru in 1975—the main artistic centres of the world were Europe and the United States and also that the debate about the colonialist or post-colonialist significance of this situation was at the time still determined in great part by the Western Marxist intelligentsia. The intellectual agenda, at least where art was concerned, had not yet shifted to postmodernism nor had narratives become plural.
It was, then, more than anything, an anxious and naïve view from afar of the Western cultural poles that shaped and inspired me, and which, despite having lived for so long in Europe, shape me still. Being Peruvian and profoundly loving European art and culture, being embedded but always knowing that I am not European and never can be, that I’ll always be far away, constitutes a great part of my Peruvian-ness.
Ph. C.: Where does your side work stand? I ask bearing in mind that these works that appeared later in your career have introduced a new sphere of representation and seem closer to contemporary quests, particularly the use of quotations and the role of the word with regard to the image.
P.P.: I conceived my photo engravings, silkscreen prints and, more recently, digigraphies as a complement to my painting, a way of bringing fourth questions that are a part of me, of making a statement or of presenting certain aspects of my pictorial quest. Generally speaking these works are a reflection in which the image and the word merge in a conceptual synthesis that specifically addresses my pictorial activity. At other times their relationship with painting is less direct and they have to do with my philosophical interests or aesthetic positions. But those works are always linked, whether loosely or closely, to my work in painting, where their raison d’être originates. It is true that those works did not come into being at the same time as my painting, but later, and they stem from the context in which I found myself at the time. For me they were a way of “opening a door” on the characteristics peculiar to my painting, a way of making it more accessible to a public, a critical community that I perceived to be less interested in painting—especially in a kind of painting that, without using photography, relied on perspective and was of a sensual, sensory and craft-like bent—than in an art of a purely conceptual and distanced nature. Having said that, I should mention that these endeavours have been part of my work since my first one-man show and have been included in almost all my shows ever since. I have found these works to be a considerable help and motivation in my reflection on my painting, creating a kind of dialectic between the painting, its workmanship, its rather contemplative content and its difficult historical context.
My more recent work in the multiple-media sphere is based conceptually on the hermetic concept so popular during the Renaissance, of the correlation between the microcosm (man) and the macrocosm (the world, the universe). Citing two seemingly disparate works by two great European artists from different periods, I reaffirm my affiliation to the pictorial tradition of the West. One of the images indicates my interest in receptacles as objects that are waiting for content and, by extension, in landscapes that represent a cavity, a pond, as in the case of Landscape with a Lake, for example. However, I try to suggest the same thing using the human figure.
I don’t know if I will continue making these “side works,” as you call them, since they do not originate from the same internal need as the paintings. They belong more to a need to justify than to show. To some extent, they constitute the exclusively cerebral, discursive, and strategic aspects of my work, its “cold” and “light” side, if you like, which is not to say that they lack a certain poetry.
The quotations, which are such a postmodern symptom, come from things that I appropriate, incorporate in my work: concepts, sayings, lists, fragments of things that I have read, works of art that nourish me.
In stark contrast to my paintings, it is hardly surprising that these “side works,” given their “technological” workmanship, the almost complete absence of craftwork in them, their impersonal and almost industrial finish, should seem more contemporary, bearing in mind the distanced stance and mediation characteristic of so many creations these days.
On the other hand, you could argue that the massive accumulation of letters, signs and words, which ends up conforming images in these works, to some extent echo the vast accumulation of pictorial dabs that produce the emergence of the image on the surface of my paintings.
These works appear to integrate themselves without difficulty, without raising suspicions or resistance in the artistic context of today. Almost impervious to contemporary prejudice, their appearance alone allows them, long before being understood (assuming they ever will be), to captivate and intrigue and usually to be accepted from the outset.