Peter Kingston

In Artist Profile Issue 50, Luke Sciberras wrote on the inimitable Peter Kingston. Saddened by news of Kingston's passing, and celebrating his life, we're pleased to share Sciberras's essay from our print archive here on our digital platform.

There are “isms,” movements and “schools-of” in the artistic vocabulary that, over time and with compelling evidence, end up sticking like glue. One of these may as well be “Kingo.”

The eye, the aesthetic lens of artists, has made an indelible impression upon our everyday.

A motorway overpass is very Jeffrey Smart, a hillside of saplings is rather Fred Williams, a backlit side-table covered in flowers is just so “Olley.” So too, the glisten on Sydney’s magnificent harbour with, for example, a retreating ferry is entirely “Kingo.”

Such is the tenacity of Peter Kingston’s drive that he has realised countless expressions of Luna Park, tug boats, mists, seasons and crepuscular rays of light, rope throwers on Circular Quay, vintage trains, the Phantom, Superman … the list goes on. Many of these have come to remind us not only of our own quaint past but (very cleverly) of his. We are lassoed into the wonderful world of “Kingo.”

Take it or leave it, there is an uncompromising focus and a singular edge to these works – in whichever form they take. Though he leads us back toward his favourites among vintage popular culture, one couldn’t really class Kingston as a pop artist; his work is too unique, too nuanced for that. Moreover his work has a memory of its own – charcoal is lost and found, paint is applied and removed, a shadow or pentimento exists to always remind us that there’s a backstory, creating a slight imperfection around the image that leaves most of Kingston’s work far from slick.

The tone running through Kingston’s art has a nostalgic command which is at once an invitation and an instruction. It is “Remember this?” or “Remember this!!” – be sure to savour, to share, and to make an expression of something and you make it last a little longer. One of the artist’s most basic urges is to share a story or a moment through an image, and that urge is seen no more keenly than in the huge body of work by Peter Kingston. The things in life that are most fleeting, in peril or whimsical, are paradoxically Kingston’s strongest and recurring motif.

Weatherboard houses at Hill End, tearooms in India, wharves, cinemas doomed to the wrecking ball, childhood memories, and indeed a sense of humour in itself are some of the endangered species Kingston has salvaged with the scratch and smudge of his distinctive painterly salutes. Kingston’s restless hand etches, spills, articulates, and smears the most iconic and the most ephemeral, giving us a glimpse into the world of the artist – a born artist.

Kingo is an incessant witness to some of the views, surfaces, and details which might easily be overlooked by those of us with not such a honed sensibility. Along with the unmistakable appeal of Kingston’s sentimental inflections comes a lifetime of absolutely fearless campaigns to champion his heroes and to fight the good fight against those who threaten that which he holds dear. This by no means comes from the consternation of a man of a certain age; it is in his every fibre, as shown in his earliest satirical cartoons for the University of New South Wales student newspaper Tharunka, and later OZ magazines in the 1960s.

He is one of the very few artists who embeds a political or wry tone into almost every work he makes, however tacit or overt. In his own way he staunchly protects everything he stands for, everything that made him the child he was and the man he is.

The iron fist that hides beneath Kingo’s velvet glove is quite possibly that swung by Popeye’s Bluto, wielding a formidable “thwack” and at once comically gritting his teeth.

By its very nature, Kingston’s work is obsessive and compulsive. This polymath’s home of almost fifty years in Lavender Bay has become a series of studios devoted to his various media. One small room overlooking the bay and bridge through paint-splattered windows is for his elaborately hand-coloured linocuts; another larger room drizzled with countless layers of beautifully coloured paint is for large paintings, which in themselves are like portholes seeing the harbour from his own three-storey Edwardian ship. An entire area of the house is converted into his own cinema to share our delights and woes through the curtains of the “King’s Theatre.” Bronze sculptures, plaster casts, charcoals, etchings, enormous pop-art chess sets, Luna Park memorabilia – few houses on the harbour are used in this way anymore, where the creative urge leaves scarcely any room for repose or interior design.

Rather, this is the place of the industrious artist at work, and his reverie. Just like Robert Klippel at Birchgrove, Martin Sharp at Bellevue Hill and his neighbour of many years Brett Whiteley.

Peter Kingston is a voyager, making entirely his own the world he paints – split through the unique prism that is his paint-splattered Sydney home with the light of the harbour forever bouncing in through the windows and dancing around on the ceiling.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 50, 2020.


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