Peter Sharp

Peter Sharp’s paintings have their source in the natural world but, through his own “rules of engagement,” morph into abstractions of surprising complexity and poetry.

Peter Sharp’s exhibition at Nicholas Thompson Gallery is titled Signal, which, as the artist writes, “refers metaphorically to the collision of ideas and objects that supposedly have a purpose.” It is a show of rigorous abstraction where the eye experiences a sense of jostling, between shapes, between textures, and colours, and also within the mind. Sharp has a long history of working with motifs sourced from the natural world, which he then attempts to strip back to their essence rather than merely depict. It is as if he is attempting the find the “thingness” of things in painterly form. For Signal, the source is debris, mostly driftwood, washed up near Sharp’s home near Sydney’s southern beaches. He will often make spontaneous sculptures of these finds to trigger aesthetic associations, before leaving them behind for others to encounter. Like flotsam and jetsam, driftwood is a problematic material for artists due to the myriad connotations attached to it, from the melancholic nostalgia these objects may infer or the physical echoes they suggest of their former, living selves, on to technical “Art” issues such as how to use their forms to go beyond the well-trodden terrain of seductive organic modernism as practiced by artists like Henry Moore or Jean Arp.

One way Sharp achieves this is that he subscribes to the idea that he must have rules of engagement, recognising the contradictory sense of freedom that comes with such a strategy. The composer Igor Stravisky recognised this too, talking of moving about the “narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings . . . [M]y freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more and more I surround myself with obstacles.” Building within similar self-imposed boundaries, Sharp restricts what he physically puts into each work (shapes, colours, media), but also acknowledges his more romantic self which seeks “more poetry, more a sense of something that is out there in the world. Like haikus. If you get it right, it explains everything. But if you fuck up, it’s doggerel.” He begins with drawings done of individual aspects of each source object, which he then collages with selections taken from a rambling collection of pre-cut shapes that he has accumulated over time. These are reinterpreted onto linen where, in a nod to hard-edge formalism, discs of colour are added, their crisp outlines juxtaposed against the ragged edge of the underlying organic.

Sharp has developed these strategies over a three-decade career which has seen many career highlights including multiple entries as a finalist in the Dobell, Sulman and Wynne Prizes at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, plus innumerable exhibitions in Australia, Europe, and Asia. During that trajectory he has moved from direct representation to abstraction, but a key moment was in 2011, when he was invited to join a group of artists taken out to Fowler’s Gap in far-western New South Wales. For much of the last decade, he has returned repeatedly to draw a patch of silver gums and ghost gums located there, deconstructing and reconstructing his resultant imagery. “I was trying to encapsulate everyone’s understanding of a gum tree, of sitting under a gum. The scent, the filtered light through the canopy, climbing in them, the different surfaces of them.” By applying his rules of engagement, the resultant paintings resisted the allure of direct representation to become instead more open, inquisitive, even quizzical (“slippery” is another word on the artist’s list). These were not the bucolic country paintings of the “Gum Tree school” artists but importantly, Sharp acknowledges their inevitable presence in this country’s culture; indeed, he still regularly does his own plein air painting and thus does not reject such influences, asking instead, “How far one can push a visual reference to the point of collapse and still relay an experience that is uniquely Australian?” 

In Signal, each of the modest-scale panels becomes a site of engagement where all these processes and strategies are held together in a delicate state of entropy. Paint is applied using palette knife, or as stains. Raised surfaces are sanded, with such abrasions accompanied by the textures caused by the artist pressing cloth or timber into patches of wet paint. In the 2022 works such as Night Compass and Fingerling, the underlying drawings float on patches of stained linen with spheres of colour suspended above them, whilst Fathead, Outlier, and Sonar all push the rules further into abstraction, punctuated by planes and discs of yellow, spearmint and teal. Ultimately, the elegant interplay between pigment and shape in paintings like Promise and Pink Sky transcend the original source material to encompass Sharp’s stated ambition towards the poetic.    

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 59, 2022.

Peter Sharp: Signal
17 August – 3 September 2022
Nicholas Thompson Gallery, Melbourne

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