It was a hot and busy afternoon, and I often find the best break can be found in an art gallery, savouring the silence and cool air. I had heard about a new exhibition at the O3 Gallery in the Oxford Castle by an artist I had never encountered before. So I went to see the exhibition by Peter Care, an artist who started in the UK, but followed an opportunity to the Netherlands and spent most of his career in Europe, before settling into a new studio in the Cotswolds in 2008.
Care uses an interesting technique in his paintings, describing it as a process of ‘reverse painting’. He loads up the canvas with thick layers of pigment before scraping it off and smudging the paint into a dynamic display, simultaneously incorporating movement and stasis. The result is a very visceral and raw product that has clearly engaged with and responded to the artist. Care began his career as a ceramicist, a practice than often also involves layering techniques as well as manipulation of the clay. His interest in engaging with materials to fully utilise their properties is then manifested in this style of painting with amazing effect.
In this exhibition, showcasing his latest artistic direction, Care has introduced structural contrast into his work, featuring clean lines from which streaks emerge. The colours used are more refined than in previous pieces, often restricted to two or three shades of the same colour. The results are stunning, allowing for much more variation and interest than his earlier work, strongly highlighting the potential of his style. In experimenting with size and space, Meditations evokes withdrawal and muted understatement, dominated by large dark spaces. My favourite series of pieces was Parallel Terrain, in particular the fourth painting. Through very controlled and restrained scraping, Care has created a set of paintings that beautifully evoke, for me, a river meadow at sunrise or sunset. It isn’t just the visual elements resembling a river and a line of trees, but the chosen colours and subtle blurring are stunningly reminiscent of an early morning in Port Meadow. You can almost feel the mist from the river.
The allusion to natural influence in the Parallel Terrain series problematises Care’s aesthetic ideologies. Care describes his paintings as autonomous and existing independently of external factors. The trope of autonomy is still common in the arts due to nineteenth-century proliferation of ideological genius status, and has been largely deconstructed and dismissed in postmodernist academic circles. Attributing a sense of universality and transcendence to works of art removes the art from its cultural context and influence, elevating it beyond being a cultural process to an intangible, mystical object. The relation Parallel Terrain bears to a natural scene, acknowledged in the title, demonstrates the inspiration Care takes from the world around him, and how his own cultural experience is only represented in his paintings, not contained in them.
However, it is easy to leap to conclusions when certain problematic buzzwords arise and I think that Care is not trying to elevate his work into a realm of universality, but merely describing his artistic process. Care’s notion of autonomy is entirely postmodernist: it is based on what the paint and materials can afford him. Care has critically deconstructed the process of painting and emerged with a unique and distinctive style. It is this distinction that makes the exhibition worth visiting for a calming interlude during the day.