In Part II, we continue our conversation with Peter Brock, in which the artist describes his unique relationship to materials, the architectural influences on his practice and the splendor of a Brooklyn sunset. Audio + transcript below.
Artwrit: It sounds kind of like you weren’t interested in writing, or creating a narrative, or writing a story; you wanted to find materials that already had a story, that just were inherently in their being.
Peter Brock: Yeah, it seemed like I was able to be more interested in my interventions on things, my hand, when it was interplaying or interacting with something that was already there, that already has a pretty strong feeling to it. Like these paving stones. That was a weird thing that at first I had no clue what I was doing. But I started taking these paving stones from underneath the BQE, that granite. They’d probably been there for, if not a hundred years, probably fifty or sixty years, and they had all this texture and dirt on them. They were beautiful. It was just allowing myself to be curious with the material. What I ended up doing to them was really minimal, but it was kind of about showcasing what was already there. Some of the pieces are way more heavy handed than that, they’re more made or crafted. It’s not all found stuff, but there’s something about a really intense curiosity with the material that I think guides it.
Are there any real found objects that are left untouched or do you manipulate them in some way? For your upcoming show I mean, the pieces that are included in that.
I don’t think there’s anything. I mean, the bricks are the closest. The paving stones have, in some cases, just a clear urethane binder coating on one section, so that’s a pretty minimal alteration. It looks essentially found, but there’s nothing straight up found. I don’t particularly relate to found art. I don’t know, the work to me seems like objects that are casual or crude enough to maybe be found, but they’re a little too composed to just look like found assemblage. I don’t think they quite fit into that.
Yeah, they don’t. Your pieces look very handled, and there’s something very craft-based about them in your practice. How much were you influenced by architecture, like carpentry or those things that you bring into your work?
Sorry, this probably should have come up when I was talking about this shift from sculpture, or to sculpture. One thing that was hugely important, I think, was that growing up my dad was an architect and a carpenter, and we always had a wood shop. We had this kind of unspoken rule where you had to make toys. If we could make a toy in the wood shop we wouldn’t buy it. Swords, bows and arrows, little race cars, boxes, ladders, tree houses, all these things we made together in the wood shop and a lot of it utilized stuff from the scrap bin. I feel like my studio right now is basically like a large scrap bin. A New York City, Brooklyn scrap bin, you know? All these castaways and things… So that was huge, and it was a really playful way of making things. I think that’s behind a lot of what’s on the wall right now. It’s just me reengaging with material which I feel comfortable with, basic construction material in a very playful sense. And it somehow short circuits the whole art making thing, where I don’t really think about art or ideas or any of that stuff when I’m making these. It really just originates in the material. So, I don’t even remember what the question is. It was something about…
It was about architecture, and how that has been an influence, and I know that your dad has definitely had an influence. What about color? You were saying there isn’t really a conscious decision as far as how the materials operate, or how they work together, that you kind of just let it flow. But with the colors, it seems like they have… I mean, there’s obviously intention behind them and they seem kind of a part of a family in a way, they all have a similar palette. There is some range, but how did you develop that?
I mean, if you look on the walls it’s pretty minimal colors, a lot of tonality. They’re all within one kind of tonal range and there’s subtle changes and shifts. We were talking about the idea of narrative and I don’t particularly relate to narrative in a painterly, linear, character sense, but maybe for me, instead of narrative as a time based thing, what I was seeking for was some kind of empathy with the object as a kind of creature or being of its own. And what was happening when I would use really bright colors, I just didn’t believe in it. Not “believe” in having inner truth or some metaphysical idea, but I couldn’t sit with them, they didn’t hang, they didn’t have that for me. So I keep gravitating towards these pretty minimal colors that seem really inherent, and almost effortless, part of the form. They’re part of the form. They’re not a varnish or a kind of final layer on top. They really, when they’re successful, feel like they’re soaked into the pores of the material and coming from that. That’s what allowed me to just sit with them and not get bothered by their… um, their lack of, I don’t know, something [laughs]. They didn’t work, yeah.
Yeah, I see what you mean. To me they kind of seem like they came from one body or from one coherent structure beforehand, and then you’ve broken them down into pieces. I don’t know if you think of them that way but…
At first I was uncomfortable with iteration in terms of repeating a general set of relationships and forms, and now I don’t really think about it I just do that. It’s like a… what’s that word, vocabulary, a language that I have. And it expands but there’s certain shapes which I just deploy kind of out of reflex in order to explore material and explore space. I used to think it was limiting but now I think it’s a great territory to work in. Especially being very materially curious, when I bring in a new material, of course my first instinct is to put one of these scooping marks that I always do on there and to see how it reacts. It’s like, you are walking on a new surface and, “Ooh is this squishy? Is this hard? How does it feel?” And for me, the type of paint handling that I usually do and some of the marks and the general spatial relationships that I like to play with, I deploy them without any reservation because it’s a form of exploring. Exploring new material, a new scale. I think that’s what I want next is a new scale, maybe a bigger scale. We talked about architecture and when I think of these things… I don’t know how much I understand my own work, but I think that I’m interested in an architectural level of space, as in something that you could imagine your body in relation to. Paintings have this whole idea sometimes of a microcosm, you know, a compressed picture, a frame, a window onto something and… I don’t know, I always thought of a horizon level of space and light. That’s another reason for the colors. Bob Reimann, Robert Reimann, is a huge influence for me and that intense influence, or, sorry, intense interest in actual light and the way that material reflects light, and what does that feel like and look like. I think that is, for me, the height of sophistication, or the type of sophistication that I aspire to… just a real deep interest and thirst for experience with material in that way and learning how things operate.
I think that sensitivity comes through in the different ways your work is articulated. I know you’re having some photography and it’s going to be in the show and that’s sort of the feeling I get from those, very subtle sort of observation of color and light. I mean, they’re very abstract. I know you’ve told me in the past what you were photographing but I don’t even remember because when I look at them its really about the color. Can you talk a little bit about those?
Sure, yeah they’re weird photographs. What I did, and I didn’t show these to anyone for two years. I’ve been making these things and I didn’t really consider them art. Its kind of like the colorful project where I kind of shoved it to the side at first because I was uncomfortable with it because I didn’t know how to fit it into what I was doing. At this point, I don’t really care about fitting it in, I just make it. What I was doing is I was going up on my roof at night, and this is when I lived in Williamsburg. Right after the sun sets you get this really cool spectrum of color. Not so much like the sunset; I’m not interested in the sunset, it’s too iconic, but after the sun sets. If the orange glow is gone you get this beautiful, deep purple reddish thing and then it goes more to blue black. I would take my camera, and I would set it open for thirty seconds, basically with no focus or anything and I would frame it against my roof, sort of. I would point the camera so about one third of it was getting the roof and the rest of it was the light of the sky, really, really diffused light. And halfway through that exposure of thirty seconds I would flip the camera upside down and aim it at what I thought would be another nice rectangle shape, you know? And it’s all blind, you can’t see what you’re doing, so I would spend a couple hours up there and shoot, you know, three hundred of these things and then see how they came out. It’s all trial and error and it’s kind of just like painting with the light, using the camera like a light sponge. And I was really interested in this play of light and structure, you know, like blocks of light and they’re just such subtle tones. I really like that space, it was so ambivalent in a way that… Not ambivalent, what’s that… Ambiguous in a way, too, that when I would try to paint ambiguous space, I spent a lot of time trying to paint fluctuating light and night, all that.
I know you talk about this, liminal spaces.
Liminal spaces, yeah. I spent a lot of time trying to make them myself and, I really realized that, for me at least, when I find them with my camera or find them in a material and then work with them a bit, it’s way more successful for me. I’m able to stick with that a lot longer than just going right to it, you know.
I’m really looking forward to seeing the rest of those photographs.
Yeah, I want to make more too. I haven’t made those for a while, I haven’t spent time on the roof. I have an idea for aluminum pieces that want to sit on the roof. It’s a really cool time of night for reflective surfaces. I had another photograph which is me reflected basically in an aluminum canvas that I had. Anything reflected at that time, if the surrounding is really dim, if your eyes… what’s that called… your pupils open up, you know like the camera’s aperture opens up, you do longer exposures, you can get all sorts of crazy beautiful subtle tones that aren’t really available to you at other times of night and that reflective surfaces give you access to. That’s something else.
It must have something to do with your vision switching to rods and cones too, and the darkness. I wonder… That’s interesting, you should do more of that.
Yeah! That would be nice, I had this idea for these paintings to be done, or to be seen sort of around sunset you know, or after sunset, in that liminal change in light.