|Recent Work by Don Peebles 2006
|31 October - 26 November 2006
|Don Peebles: Still Exploring at 83
Interview with Christopher Moore published in The Christchurch Press 25 May 2005
Distinguished artist Don Peebles is holding his first Christchurch exhibition since 1999. He talks to Christopher Moore.
Don Peebles might be excused for feeling slightly peevish on this bright autumn morning. Minor leg surgery is preventing him from indulging in one of his great pleasures besides painting – a regular game of tennis with his old friend and fellow artist, Philip Trusttum.
Peevish, however is a word that doesn’t seem to exist in Peebles lexicon. With the offending limb neatly swaddled in bandages and propped up on a stool, a mug of coffee at hand and the sight of a golden Canterbury day outside in a leafy suburban street, this is a perfect time to reflect on a hugely productive career in art.
Today, 83 years young, Peebles is one of the most respected, acclaimed and critically admired cultural voices. His first Christchurch exhibition since 1999 is showing at the Campbell Grant Galleries and he continues to create works described by another old friend, artist and arts writer John Coley, “a finely tuned harmony of movements, forms, tones, all parts held in perfect, energy charged tension like that of a high performance yacht at full spread...an expression of controlled force.”
There’s no mistaking the Peebles style. Carefully controlled, reduced to the essential elements, austere, textured and totally absorbing, his works feature the informal components he began using in the late 1970’s, including the cut-and-folded unstretched canvas used to create his distinctive relief paintings.
“I want the work to have presence’, he once wrote. “The good painting pumps its energy from the wall.”
Peebles left school at 15 to join the Post Office as a telegram boy. During World War 2 he served as a radio operator in the Pacific and Italy where he began studying art in Florence while waiting to be demobilised. Returning to Wellington, he worked at the Post Office by day and as an emerging painter in his spare time.
After four years at Wellington’s Technical School of Art, he studied in Sydney and London before becoming a Lecturer at Canterbury’s School of Fine Arts. When he retired in 1986, Peebles held the position of Reader in Painting and was recognised as one of New Zealand’s most distinguished artists.
Peebles is still energetically exploring the world through his art, creating a flow of work that constantly reflects new ideas and perceptions.
“If nature were to take up a brush, colours and canvas and make paintings, the result, one suspects, would be very close to what Peebles achieves,” Coley says. The man himself, meanwhile, offers his own perspectives.
Q: How do you feel about public exhibitions of your work ?
A: “Although this is my first Christchurch exhibition since 1999 I have been involved in other exhibitions in Auckland, Wellington and Marlborough. That’s kept me going purposefully but it’s nice to have show down here.
“It’s also good to get your works out form the untidy, facing-the-wall setting of the studio and get them into a different environment and get the comments of intelligent people. It’s a useful experience and one I enjoy. The art sometimes looks better in a gallery than the studio. Getting the art out into the world is part of its journey. I learn from having a show.”
Q: What are your memories of your first solo exhibition in 1954 ?
A: “I had already exhibited at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts during the 1940’s. My first solo show was at the Architectural Centre in Cable Lane in Wellington. In those days I was a straight representational painter before moving out into other ways of working.
“The AC gallery was a lively environment for well-attended exhibitions. You hear comments about how boring the 1950’s were in New Zealand but that wasn’t my experience. New Zealanders had travelled after the war and they were eager to see art exhibitions. In Wellington, the Evening Post’s art critic condemned anything that had the slightest sniff of modernism about it. But he was still read.
“New Zealanders generally had a lively attitude to sculpture and painting. Art in the 1950’s had its deeply conservative side, but there were stirrings of new ideas and a great deal of support. Compared to what it had been like before the war this was a supportive environment.”
Q: Was studying in Australia a pivotal period in your career ?
A:” It was. Those three years in Sydney were the time that I felt my eyes were fully opened to the possibilities. After four years of rigidly academic teaching in Wellington, I learned a lot. There was still a strong emphasis on life drawing and painting, but it was more open to possibility in Australia.
“It’s always in the tradition of art to move forward and do things which are different but often linked to the past. Today, the role of art is to create rather than conserve. You can’t drag your fathers corpse around on your back all the time.”
Q: Your own style has, of course, changed dramatically since you began painting.
A: “When I was trying to paint seriously and consistently in my early 20’s I didn’t realise that I preferred to work either in the early morning or late afternoon when forms became shapes with the sun behind them. This interlocking of formal elements has always fascinated me. I was looking for the big shapes rather that infinite detail. I was in some way predisposed towards abstractionism, perhaps programmed to go down this route.
“Becoming an abstract painter took me about eight years after starting in a conscious way in 1954. After seven years at art school, I wanted to get all this out of my system and work positively towards finding my own voice. It was a process of rejecting some things and trying others I hadn’t attempted previously. There were times when I threw the baby out with the bathwater, but I was really trying to rid myself of things which were not helpful to me at that stage. I was trying to discover more by refining my ideas and thinking more clearly and deeply. Eight years later, in London, I created an abstract painting.”
Q: You have been described as a philosopher...
A: “I’m not sure what I am. I would simply like to create half way decent paintings before I die. However, I do think a lot about art. It’s always on my mind. I draw while watching television, drawing people being interviewed. While my wife is driving the car, I usually have sketch block on my knees to produce more of my ‘driving drawings’. These record things which impress me, getting something down from memory, choosing the subjects which make an impression on me – a shaft of light coming from a cloud, for example. These drawings become very fertile little gardens of ideas which eventually get into my abstract work.
“The figure in motion has always fascinated me. When I was teaching at Ilam, I made life drawing mandatory on the basis of how do you know at 19 or 20 how your work is going to evolve ? If you want to ridicule or discard something like life drawing, you should have experienced it, otherwise you are discarding something from a lack of knowledge – and that’s an unsavoury experience.
“It’s not simply drawing ‘people’. It’s learning to draw the space between forms. It’s looking at light and dark, structures, and understanding how the world is made up. Whether your going to be an abstract painter or an architect, these ideas of proportion, scale and the spaces in between are important.”