Tony Peters' Clean, bright, roads by Stephen Jared
While working as an assistant at the renowned Mendenhall Gallery in Pasadena, Tony Peters apprenticed Richard Bunkall. Upon first meeting Tony, he asks me, "Do you know Richard?"
"Only from reproductions", I confess.
"He was a hero to me."
Tony watched Richard paint with a brush strapped to his hand. Suffering from Lou Gehrig's Disease, Richard could no longer raise his right arm alone, and so he lifted it with the aid of his left. He could no longer stand, and worked in a motorized wheelchair. Fourteen years after Richard's death, this resilience in the face of such struggle remains a source of inspiration.
We talk of Los Angeles. I've lived in the city for twenty-five years, have written extensively on her earlier days, and while many California artists focus on ocean views or rolling landscapes, Tony's work focuses on the city as viewed from a car. It's accurate to see Los Angeles this way, more comprehensive and, not unlike me, he's drawn to the history.
"What first attracted you to these types of pictures?"
"Well, Richard would paint downtown, Broadway; he would paint pictures of theaters and other buildings. Working with him, I really came to love old Los Angeles, the architecture, Union Station; what's not to love? I also began working with Suong Yangchareon who painted old Los Angeles. He'd stop and stare at a streetlamp from the 40s or 50s and get real excited. It was a big influence on me. Back then no one was doing these urban landscapes."
"There was a recent show at the Pasadena Museum of California Art that showcased a lot of urban landscapes."
"Yeah, there is a history to this. Back in the 30s and 40s California had its response to the Ashcan painters. A lot of those California painters went into animation at the movie studios; that's where the money was."
"Hopper's an influence."
"He's painfully lonely though. I see your work as more romantic."
"For me, it's important that pictures convey an optimism, a hopefulness. My pictures are clean, bright. I want to escape into my work. And I have to say, and I feel a little guilty about this, but it's like I go into this happy place with my work. I love looking at Goya, but it's work I don't see myself doing, that level of darkness. My youth was not a great time. I don't have a lot of happy memories. So, I'm kind of creating them now. I'm painting the world I'd like to live in. I think I actually became a painter to escape a lot of the unhappiness. And so, I have a dark place. I feel uncomfortable with it, and work to elevate myself above it in my paintings."
"Why were you unhappy?"
"I don't think my parents were very prepared to ... They had a lot of anger. I think when I was younger I thought I could change them, but that's kind of a childish wish."
"What did your parents do?"
"My mother was always doing something in the beauty industry. My dad has done many things. I grew up on a farm in Iowa till I was nine. Then we moved here (San Diego). He had been a farmer and a rancher. We came here and he kind of dabbled in sales. He was a stockbroker for a while. And then he went on to start a carpet cleaning company."
"Did they react with wild enthusiasm when you said you wanted to be a painter?"
"No (laughs). For them there's no place to connect with that. They had no idea what it meant to be a painter, which was probably why the career was so attractive to me. They came to a Richard Bunkhall show I helped put together, and all the paintings were selling for like $200,000 and they were clearly in a whole other world. They just never knew it existed."
"I see a Balthus influence."
"I think about the surface of my paintings, and I think about Balthus."
"To me, he seems a greater influence than Hopper. His work is mysterious. Plus, the geometric design."
"Yes, I've actually been thinking about him a lot lately. There's a grid."
"You paint a lot of roads. Lots of artists, from Kerouac to Springsteen, have seen the open road as representative of an escape. But for you the open road doesn't take you away. The road is not open at all; it's a swirling mass of ramps and bridges ..."
"Yeah, they're heavy things. Big, massive heavy things ..."
"And you can't escape."
"Yes. I love the image of a freeway under construction."
"Is your initial response to an image visual, or psychological?"
"Visual first. Immediate reaction has to be visual. But secondarily, yes, it's psychological. I start reading into why I'm responding so much."
"You don't see litter in the streets in your work. As you said, they're very clean. Is that to put a greater emphasis on the shapes and composition?"
"I like to think that beautiful thoughts lead to beautiful things, however, I don't always have beautiful thoughts. Sea level for me is not a happy place. So there's a constant effort to inflate myself over that. In order to do that I need something that's going to get me excited. So, I collect. I go out and collect beautiful images. I do something that is going to stimulate myself. And that's probably behind everything for me."
"So, I wouldn't be reaching too far to suggest that maybe losing the litter and clutter is a way of cleaning out the cobwebs, as it were?"
"One of the things I like about your work is that the psychological aspects aren't in your face."
"In dealing with psychological subject matter, I think it's important to be kind of quiet about it. Appreciating a painting should be a slow process. You can appreciate a movie in two hours unless it's a Kubrick movie, and then it might take longer, but a painting should be given time to unveil itself. A truly beautiful thing tends to become more beautiful as it's understood more."
"Do you think of yourself as a regional painter?"
"I can't help it. If I moved to New York, I'd still be a California painter. What comes with that is I tend to go for the cinematic. My paintings are surreal, but you have to really look at them to understand they're surreal. They're grounded in reality. An influence on my surrealism, by the way, was Mark Ryden, another Mendenhall artist, and someone I worked directly with when I took a semester off from the Art Center."
Tony shows me a new series he's working on called "Inflatables." In each, a California sky hangs over a giant inflated creature. King Kong or Godzilla or some other similarly recognizable beast rises into the sky from atop a retail outlet, such as a car dealership, advertising a sale. I tell him that, "My first reaction is they are cute, but upon lengthier contemplation they become a little horrifying.""
"A little bit (he laughs). I was driving, thinking about the absurdity of constantly racing around, the daily grind, and how surreal it seemed, and then I saw one of these. I couldn't stop thinking about the surreal within our modern day."
"A lot of artists put enormous value in spontaneity. Your work seems meticulously plotted out. Do you envy those whose work is more spontaneous?"
"Oh, yeah. But, you know, Degas said something about how a work of art should be as meticulously planned as a crime. I like taking time with them, however, I do admire other artists who can do things much more quickly."
"Sometimes the color in your work is incredibly vibrant, sometimes a milky white. It's accurate to the changing skies of Los Angeles and how we see everything filtered through those skies. Did you ever think these pale pictures might be more difficult to sell because people tend to want vibrant colors?"
"People like to have a pretty picture, but I don't think about that when I'm making a picture. I'm just making art. I think the weaker light, though less obviously beautiful, is something I will continue to use."
Award winning painter Tony Peters is represented by the American Legacy Fine Arts (ALFA) gallery in Pasadena, California. He has had over twenty gallery shows, and is a member of the California Arts Club. In January 2014, he will be appearing at the largest and most significant art fair in the West, the LA Art Show.
For more information about Tony Peters, please visit www.tonypetersart.com.