For THE SOAK UP episode 7 from Venus & the Cat we had a written follow up with Dr. Charley Peters. Charley is a wealth of knowledge, insights and ideas on art and artistic practices and so we wanted to close off some open topics with her.
VATC: How did you find your distinct style?
Charley Peters: I don’t ever think about ‘style’ as a conscious thing, even though I’m aware that what I make has a particular aesthetic that makes it recognisable as mine. And this is important so that your work as an artist is unique and distinctive. How it got to look like it does isn’t done by design though, it’s like our handwriting; it comes out in its own way from a place that we can’t necessarily control. I don’t believe that you can deliberately cultivate your work to look a certain way. A ‘style’ or personal language as an artist evolves only by making lots of work. I think of it as being like a truth that eventually is revealed. I think that what I make is part me and my way of doing things, a reflection of my technical skills, a mash up of lots of things that I’ve seen and an exploration of formal concerns about painting.
VATC: Is your work a window onto the world, or a reflection of it?
Charley Peters: It’s neither and both. I guess I’d say that it’s a window to ‘a’ world, an imaginary space that I make when I paint that nobody else can make. It’s my world. I wouldn’t say it’s a way through which to see ‘the’ world though. Experiencing art is subjective and I’ve no interest in controlling what people see or how they interpret it. I’m not trying to say anything specific in that regard. Having said that, although my work comes from an abstract positioning – it doesn’t represent anything from the real world – there are maybe some familiar aspects to it, such as shapes, colours, aesthetics that remind us of things we have seen before. And my work is invariably a reflection of my reality. I think that we are all like sponges who soak up visual material and experiences every day, it all gets mixed up inside us and we reform it into something new when we make artworks.
VATC: So, in that sense, are you a translator as an artist?
Charley Peters: No, not a translator, because to me that implies that there is a specific meaning to convey and there really isn’t. Maybe I see an artist as being more like a conduit or even a kind of medium, a channel through which subconscious creative impulses are made into material form.
VATC: Does your art define you, or do you define your art?
Charley Peters: Again, a bit of both. My art defines me in so much as being an artist is my primary identity – it’s what I do every day and what occupies my mind most of the time. It shapes my lifestyle and my goals. And I define my work by making it, although it does also develop organically… I never think, ‘I’m going to make a painting look like this, or fit into this category’, it just comes out that way and has evolved over time without that much conscious control over its visual sensibilities.
VATC: So does it ever irk you if someone tries to box you into an artistic category or assume your influence?
Charley Peters: Yes sometimes. It makes me agitated if I think that people haven’t really LOOKED at my work and have just made judgements on a first impression or rushed encounter. At the same time, I can’t control this, so I have to let go of the responsibility of expecting people to see or think in a way that makes sense to me – we all respond to art in our own ways. There are certain trigger words for me that make me feel icky: ‘pattern’, ‘colourful’ and any comparison to op art make me squirm. I especially dislike op art as a genre…
VATC: The layering of your work in its composition is, at the same time, both freeform and carefully considered… do you hope that the viewer comprehends it through that same journey, that they have to unweave it as it was created, or should it be immediately digestible as a whole?
Charley Peters: I can’t control how the viewer sees my work and I wouldn’t ever try to. I think we all see things in our own way that is shaped by all the experiences that make us unique as people. When people see my work online, for example on Instagram, they see a very small and immediately digestible version of it, it’s an ‘image’ that can be understood quickly as a whole. When you see my paintings in real life, it’s much easier to start to understand how they are constructed – you can see textures, layers and other visual clues that reveal its making. It becomes more of a ‘surface’ and less of an ‘image’. I try to show more of the process of how I make my paintings on Instagram, it’s important to me that painting remains a material experience and not something as slick and precise as Instagram might make it appear, so I often show works in progress, close ups of work and try to talk as much as possible about how I paint and what I’m thinking. Paint is tricky stuff and I’m quite clumsy with it, I make a lot of mess in the studio and so to tell the story of my work properly I have to find ways to express this.
VATC: If you don’t conceive a finished painting before you start it, how do you know when you’ve finished?
Charley Peters: This takes time. If I think something might be finished, I have to leave it for a few days and see how I feel when I come back to it. It’s hard to ‘see’ it as soon as I think it’s done. Usually for me the sensation that something is finished is quite a physical one. It’s like I’ve been holding my breath the whole time I’ve been working on it and then I can finally exhale. In my head it feels like I’m breathing out slowly and pushing the painting away from me with my hands. I generally feel like this when I feel like the painting is ‘balanced’, when there’s enough on the canvas for there to be interesting relationships within the painting but without it being too complex (but complex enough).
VATC: And then how do you name it, if its identity is the last thing to form?
Charley Peters: Titles are so difficult. I never want them to explain the work or tell you how to read it, so I’m quite careful that there’s a disconnect between what you see and what you read as a title. I’m interested in the relationship between written and visual language – they both work in very different ways. Written language can add ‘meaning’ where it doesn’t otherwise exist and that can be a distraction from what you see. I find my titles online. They are based on texting abbreviations or online gaming acronyms. I usually mash up two different sayings to make something that sounds like a sentence. There’s a familiarity to the language that I like and they often sound strangely emotional – cynical or impassioned – yet I think my paintings aren’t ‘expressive’ in that way. I choose the titles without too much thought, I just like collaging together different phrases until they sound cool, make me smile, or have an attitude that feels right with the painting.
VATC: You have talked about how technology influences your art. Technology changes at an exponential rate. What does that mean for you
Charley Peters: Not much really. When I talk about technology I am referring mostly to the aesthetics of technology and not how anything works – I’m the least competent person ever at understanding technology or how to use it. For me there’s some romance in looking back at the early days of home computing and what it promised in terms of advancements in society. I was so excited when I got a ZX Spectrum when I was a teenager… mostly because my parents were always around 5 years behind picking up on trends, so it felt like I was finally stepping into the future (albeit several years later than everyone else that I knew). Technology then was so new and unknown but so futuristic and cool, and I loved all the graphic language and stories around it where sci-fi and reality started to meet, in films like ‘Tron’ and ‘War Games’. I became obsessed with writing very simple programs on my computer that would draw lines on the screen that would go on forever, each line a different colour until the screen was filled with visual noise. So, my interest in technology is mostly aesthetic and rooted in an idea of ‘technology’ from around 1985. And when people started using Photoshop when I first went to art school in the 1990s, I loved how it felt like a 3-dimensional canvas where images were made of many layers. That ended up being how I like to make paintings. These days I look at images of VR and AI and think it looks cool - and I love that it is a mixture of both the utopian and the dystopian, progress being made but also the fear of the machine taking over from the human - but I know I’ll never understand how it works or what it does, and don’t really care that much either.
VATC: Is there any element to your work that you feel people sometimes miss?
Charley Peters: Not really, other than not knowing straight away how I’ve made something. I like that the longer you spend looking at a painting, the more that you can start to understand how it was made. I don’t make a secret of these things though, I’m quite happy to reveal information about how I make things.
VATC: Is there a burning artistic ambition that you’ve yet to fulfil?
Charley Peters: I’m nowhere near fulfilling my ambitions yet, but I think that I am working quietly towards them. For now I’ll just be pleased once galleries reopen so I can show paintings in real life again.