Sammy Peters, now in his late 70s, has been making abstract paintings for a half-century. If you are an Arkansan and familiar with our native talents, or if you are a lover of abstract art anywhere, you know Peters’ work well.
Still, you may ask yourself, as I do on occasion, what is it with abstract art? What am I supposed to appreciate about it? It doesn’t tell a story, nor does it portray people, things that prompt an emotional response to art.
In the 1950s, the answer might have been that abstract art is about color, not history; shape, not people; composition, not emotion; that it is devoid of political comment, and evolved naturally from impressionism. (Or that’s what they would have said in the art history class of my youth).
But the mind — or at least the unlearned mind, such as mine — yearns for narrative, the human form, sadness, sex, the spiritual. Where is the fleshy maiden of Rubens or, more to my liking, the irony of de la Tour? Where is the lush portrayal of folded satin, the inexpressible beauty in Mr. Rembrandt’s self-portraits?
Here’s the thing. You can have all that and like abstraction, too. Why compare?
Here’s what I like about Sammy Peters’ paintings, which happen to be hanging in two different exhibitions in Little Rock right now — one at the Butler Center Galleries in the Arkansas Studies Institute and the other at Greg Thompson Fine Art in Argenta: I see narrative in these abstractions. I see landscapes. I see sexy color; the satisfyingly drawn line. And, often, joy.
I confess that what draws me to “Existence: isolation, reason” (2005) is the off-center rectangular form that to me says “Door. Enter here.” Step into this mud-green-brown-over-brick red-scumbled surface. See the black back-and-forth brush strokes that, while they describe nothing tangible, are beautiful in themselves. See the indefinable colors created by layers of paint, the smartly placed ovals of brown intruding into the picture plane from the top. That’s where the door leads.
Peters works geometrically, with blocks of color overlain with strips of fabric, repeating parallel lines, objects that look like chairs, paint through which he’s drawn his fingers. There is always movement. Sometimes, multiple elements and hues jostle one another, as in “Emergence: shadow, memory” (2015) at Thompson: If you took the drip can and loaded brush and cigarette butts away from Jackson Pollock, he might have made this Peters. If you confined de Kooning, he might have made a Peters, too.
If you must have a landscape, look also at “Tentative: underlying, spaces” (2013, at Thompson), in which a bit of David Bailin has snuck in, or “Relation: determined, paradigm” (2012, at Thompson). Peters is not a landscape painter, but I sometimes see perspective within what should be an overall, flat picture, especially in his more line-heavy works. The atlatl shape in “Relation” begins to feel like foreground and the white and yellow lines above and on either side as receding to a point just above center. There is so much to look at.
You might yearn for an unadulterated color here and there, but seldom will Peters accommodate. His paints are layered so he can produce what his friends say are “colors with no name,” so he can scratch into them, mess with them. An exception is, surely coincidentally, “Exception: attempted, acceptance” (Butler Center), a luminous work with an aqua blue across the top, a line of royal blue beneath, an only slightly scumbled yellow in the middle and a wedge of green at the bottom left. Walking into the picture frame on the right is a brown shape that, forgive me, Sammy, looks like a chubby dog. It’s not a dog, of course, but just a strange brown shape with black quarter-notes coming off its, er, haunches. Like all of Peters’ works, it is astoundingly composed.
Most of Peters’ works are large — some of them truly monumental, their gestures big and bold — but there also are smallish, tuck-in-your-purse-sized works at both galleries (not that I would suggest you do that). Abstraction works best on a big scale; the smaller works feel like souvenirs. Though if you don’t have 20 grand burning a hole in your pocket, these might be just the ticket if you want to own a work by Sammy Peters. And who doesn’t?
The show at Thompson closes Aug. 12; the Butler Center exhibition runs through Aug. 26.