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Paige Peterson’s Interior Landscapes

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Mar 02, 2011
Category: Art and Photography

Fifteen years ago, after a long and harrowing brain surgery, Paige Peterson had a revelation. In her hospital bed, using a sketchbook more as therapy than a record of creation, she found herself thinking, "Let go. Be the painter you want to be."

Liberation occurred instantly, as it so often does when we stop seeing our work as a public self-indictment and start seeing it as a gift to the world.
In Peterson’s case, liberation from painting traditions did not require jettisoning years of formal training, for she had none. As a child growing up in San Francisco, she thought about art "all the time." Her mother, an interior designer who owned a retail store, had Paige and her sister create a new display window every Sunday. With her mother, she visited art shows and artist’s studios — especially the Sausalito studio of Jean Varda, a restless innovator who used fabric, paper and paint to make collages. Her childhood trips abroad were dotted with museums.
But she never had the courage to pick up a brush until she was 18.
Because it was in her character to see "the most interesting and best parts of people," she started with portraits. Landscapes followed. Her 2008 show showcased more than 50 canvases of the view from her East Hampton home. "The most beautiful harbor I’ve ever seen, the sky reflected in the water, that ever-changing East End light — it’s a painter’s dream subject," she says.
But not, for Peterson, a never-ending subject. Readers will sharp visual memory will recall that she illustrated my revised version of A Christmas Carol. As for her new paintings — if you’re in New York, you’re invited to the opening at the Gerald Peters Gallery [click to see 12 of her new paintings], 24 East 78th Street, on Thursday, March 3rd, 6-8 PM; RVSP to or call Emily Tupper at 212-452-6609 — are mostly interior landscapes, a first for her. "The underpinnings of this show are confidence and joy," she says. "I know I have the skills to execute almost any idea. And these are ideas that aim to deliver big, exuberant emotion."
The centerpiece of the show is "Birch Circle," an imagined view of a Vermont river, as seen from above. A branch with red leaves floats in the air, unconnected to a tree. A flurry of green and yellow leaves and grass occupies an upper corner. In another, there’s a side view of a stand of birches — an angle not possible from this point-of-view. The entire bottom half of the painting is a rushing river.
The pulsating, roaring energy — in effect. the radiant optimism — of "Birch Circle" applies even to the three largest paintings in the show, a series inspired by the California fires that threatened her sister’s home in Orange County. Are these portraits of devastation? Not for Peterson. The fires, she notes, have burnt out. Life is returning. 
Other paintings are more abstract. These have had many incarnations along the way, with layers of paint that suggest the complexity of the human nervous system and tall plants that might be skyscrapers. Because a few of these images are blurred, some will recall Anselm Kiefer‘s great bucolic images, which he smears with a light touch of a soft brush or a squeegee.
Does a series of windows draw on images from Bonnard and Manet? Not quite. It’s Jean Varda who’s the real influence; Peterson’s childhood visits to his studio imprinted the many possible permutations of glued fabric on paintings. Here she has recycled a piece of cloth that she bought in Bali thirty-five years ago.
Other canvases use fabric from Fortuny, and take Peterson back to a childhood visit with Countess Gozzi in Venice. (The countess spoke perfect English because she had been born as Elsie McNeill, daughter of the president of Coca-Cola for Europe; when she married a Venetian count, Alvise Gozzi, they took over the Fortuny Company.) "The Countess told us how many processes were involved in the creation of the fabric," Peterson says, "so when I glued it on these canvases, I put them through a few more. It wasn’t unusual for me to paint over the fabric, scrape and wash and sand it off, add a layer and repeat the process as many as twenty times."
Those repetitive sessions, Peterson says, were pleasurable in the extreme. Now they are finished, dry, hung — and the pleasure belongs to the viewer.