For close to two decades, M.A. Peers’s work has passionately engaged the process of painting, art history, popular culture, and formal strategies of portraiture. Her paintings and drawings typically combine delicately rendered figures and forms within enigmatic but brilliantly colored fields. Peers often works with subject matter based on a range of cultural icons, including mass-media stereotypes of purebred dogs, Soviet space dogs, and corporate and political figures. For her exhibition at Pomona College, Peers presents new paintings from two very different bodies of work: abstractions and portraits of whippet dogs.
Recently, the grounds in Peers’s figurative works have gradually engulfed their subjects—frequently corporate figures—and the paintings have crossed into pure abstraction. This new approach allows her the freedom to move past the restrictions that working with specific imagery imposes. In these abstractions, Peers explores a more unrestrained style of mark making and a more vibrant and varied color and surface. The saturated, luscious fields of color in the resulting non-representational works seem luxuriously, and gorgeously, indulgent.
In the second body of work in “Project Series 42,” Peers tackles issues of pictorial structure and form through portraits of competitive whippets. Since childhood, Peers has been both showing dogs and making art. The new paintings stem from the last four years of Peers’s work with training and showing whippets. Expanding on her longtime fascination with canine physical structure and design, Peers determined that in order to fully comprehend whippets, she would need to paint them, to depict them formally, as she states, “like architectural renderings.” Working from photographs of current top-breed conformation contenders, Peers drew the dogs’ outlines freehand with paint directly on the paper surface, capturing the structural and formal components of the dogs’ bodies. Peers thus translates into paint the incremental physical variations within the purely idealized vision of what makes a perfect breed example, echoing the strict formulae used to judge the Whippet Breed Standard as interpreted by individual breeders. For example, the following describes the American Kennel Club’s official whippet: “Should convey an impression of beautifully balanced muscular power and strength, combined with great elegance and grace of outline. …All forms of exaggeration should be avoided.” (http://www.akc.org/breeds/whippet/) In the aesthetic world of dog shows and dog breeding, the “look” is often the final arbiter of success, and in these paintings Peers has captured in paint the formal relationships of the parts of each dog’s body and the subtle aesthetic differences in each dog’s winning look.
M.A. Peers’s exhibition is the forty-second in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series, which is an ongoing program of focused exhibitions of work by Southern California artists.
Essay by Doug Harvey
Guys & Dogs
M.A. Peers’s Taxonomies of Aesthetic Power
A generic, purebred, black Labrador with a fluorescent orange “training dummy” in its mouth, blown up to three or four times life size, is depicted on a meticulously constructed patchwork of stained and shredded floral-patterned upholstery scavenged from abandoned curbside sofas. An uncommissioned portrait of an arbitrary corporate cultural figure—say, Bill Taylor, the co-founding editor of the dot-com futurist business magazine Fast Company—is rendered in a style that references the language of contemporary international painting, the aesthetics of annual report graphic design, and the paranormal investigations chronicled on the Coast to Coast AM with Art Bell radio talk show. An enormous mosaic grid of hand-painted, monochrome, square tiles resolves—from about twenty-five feet away—into a 1950s cookbook illustration of a red, heart-shaped cheesecake. A virtuosic knot of painterly abstraction that modulates into a hazy landscape equates a mythical bottomless pit in rural Washington with the Forestay waterfall in Chexbres, Switzerland.
It would be hard to conjure a more disparate array of cultural signifiers, but these are just a cross-sample of the quixotic mash-ups that constitute the two decades-worth of painting that make up the singular oeuvre of Los Angeles-based painter M.A. Peers. Despite ongoing interest and support from the West Coast art critical community, the most widespread notice Peers’s work has received to date is for her heroic, elaborately framed, Soviet Realism-meets-Gainsborough portraits of five Russian space dogs that were commissioned in the early twenty-first century by the Museum of Jurassic Technology. In an ironic testimony to Peers’s restless, constantly mutating signature, this group of paintings was created through a provisional, fictional persona and originally intended to be anonymous.
This very un-pin-down-ability has made Peers’s work continually surprising over the course of her career. However, her versatility sometimes has the effect of deflecting attention from the deeper congruencies of formalist and conceptual experimentation—as well as idiosyncratic personal political engagements—that permeate her work. To untangle these aspects, it is illuminating to consider the work the artist was doing as part of the legendary Student Bolshevik artist collective in Winnipeg, Canada, prior to her attendance in the early 1990s of the grad program at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Immediate precursors to the better-known Royal Art Lodge, Student Bolsheviks were a wild and wooly group, composed mostly of painters responding in an energetic but ambivalent fashion to the eighties painting boom. Their activities also encompassed performance, sculpture and installation, experimental music, video, zines, and particularly, guerrilla exhibition. During this heady period, Peers produced a series of large-scale, abstract painting/collages (as well as a couple of sculptures and installations) made from domestic detritus like linoleum flooring, lampshades, upholstery, housepaint, tilework, carpeting, fur coats, shattered wine bottles, polyurethane, and assorted knick-knacks, as well as the occasional application of traditional oil paint.
These little-known works were the subject of Peers’s first solo exhibit, “Recent Excavations” (1991). While formally indebted to earlier collagists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Kurt Schwitters, they toyed equally with the joyous, ridiculous materiality of Julian Schnabel’s plate paintings and the literal yet arbitrary sumptuousness of the Boyle Family’s painted fiberglass casts of random rectangles of the earth’s surface. Their most pronounced conceit, however, was the deliberate inversion of the conventional relationship between decoration and surface: Peers often submerged fragments of flocked art-nouveau revival wallpaper (or whatever) under pools of liquid plastic, while flirting shamelessly with potential feminist and anti-consumerist interpretations.
The ambiguities of narrative symbolism—and the negative space between real and official stories—are fundamental templates through all of Peers’s art. Yet as spatially, narratively, and compositionally intricate as these early abstractions were, once she relocated to Los Angeles, Peers found herself needing to exaggerate the inherent schisms in picture-making, and undermine the facility at which she had arrived. Her next inversion rendered all these concerns as the compressed ground to a surprising figure from her past: the American Kennel Club (AKC) standardized purebred dog. “When [Los Angeles painter] Linda Day said I should paint the most embarrassing thing I could think of,” says Peers, “I thought of an Irish setter.”*
Peers’s immersion in the aesthetically complex world of canine conformation began early in life and continued as her major obsession until Art School. The systematized aesthetic criteria of the Dog World contrasted significantly with those of the (rather less well-delineated) Art World. Her breakthrough series (1992–1998, but continuing sporadically to the present) entailed giant images of dog-food-bag models iconically centered over stitched-together cubist landscapes or Op-Art vortices assembled from scavenged upholstery fabric. In these paintings, she conflated seemingly unrelated aspects of contemporary culture in a manner that was both personal and political. It was personal in that it reintegrated (or at least superimposed) the talismanic roots of her own artistic practice (as a child, she had obsessively painted dogs) into the sophisticated visual vocabulary she had developed as a practicing contemporary artist. In bringing into question unspoken issues of class, genealogical hierarchies, connoisseurship, and aesthetic authority in both arenas, it was political.
The upholstery dogs even undermined their own authority. Although specifically addressing the degradation of visual codes through their absorption and adaptation in industrial mass culture (the generic, anthropomorphic distortions of breed standards in popular media and the trickle-down Bauhausisms of office furniture), they were gorgeously composed and painted, grand in scale, vibrantly colored, and winningly humorous. By using materials from the mass media and the gutter to reconfigure two of the traditional tropes of upper-class status—animal portraiture and interior design—Peers challenged viewers to examine their preconditioned responses to symbolic visual systems. In making the work as visually extravagant and innovative as she could, she includes herself in the equation.
This highly charged ambivalence resulting from layers of conflicting information is one of the constants underlying Peers’s seemingly disparate pictorial strategies. Concurrently with the first group of upholstery dogs, she détourned the Still Life with a series of large-scale paintings derived from the dramatically idealized food photography that evolved in cookbooks and women’s magazines through the mid-twentieth century. Peers sometimes employed a labor-intensive, quasi-conceptual gridding process to render the image in the form of a tile mosaic—a faux-digital translation that pushed the boundaries of pictorial legibility. In Cave Canem (1994), she transposed an equally populist hunting-dog print via a deliberately wonky grid system onto a series of four ersatz-rockwork, plastic concrete molds. Her repeated patterns of simulated randomness resulted in an unreadably abstracted image of considerable complexity and subtle beauty.
As the millennium turned, so did Peers’s attention—from eugenics and home economics to the under-examined but highly evolved symbolic language of corporate culture. Initially one aspect of a larger project examining atypical representations of masculinity and their relationship to societal power (or lack thereof), Peers’s Overcoming Excellence series (2000–2006) drew on the lengthy portraiture tradition of immortalizing powerful men. But Peers incorporated the design sensibilities of the information-era business world, which were folded into her response to advances (and fashions) of her international painting contemporaries. Most of her subjects were little-known, mid-level executives from such upstart firms as Starbucks or The Gap; others were, on occasion, geopolitical players like soon-to-be-infamous Ken Lay of Enron and Ahmed Chalabi’s nephew, Salem.
None of her subjects were approached for permission, or even notified of the honor. But Peers again offset the potential broad-stroke political critique by creating sumptuously designed, avant-garde portraiture that would not look out of place in the boardroom of a cutting-edge, dot-com corporation. Only the use of sub-luxury materials like unstretched reflective Mylar and scraps of wood paneling—and the inserted images of untethered hot air balloons, paranormal plasma balls, and other quirky props—queered the apparent confidence in the possibility of infinite economic (and cultural) expansion.
In her most recently exhibited body of work, Found Yuppie (2006–2009), Peers has taken aboard a new male protagonist—an androgynous, anonymous, yuppie everyman. He appears in a series of exquisitely painterly apparitions, oozing through the surface of a found scrap of Masonite, materializing in the head of a teddy bear climbing the stairs with a candlestick, dissolving in rainbow-tinged white light, or beneath layers of minor-key, stained glass bubble shapes. Initially based on a cluster of indistinguishable industry drones who were moving in to gentrify Peers’s previously diverse Los Angeles neighborhood, the same template of infantilized masculinity soon began revealing itself to the artist at every turn. A surprising tenderness marks Peers’s depictions of this frail harbinger of the coming anemic apocalypse—yet his presence is so insubstantial that Peers’s escalating engagement with painting history and technique has flooded in to fill the vacuum, with fragments of Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Giotto accumulating over structural homages to Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp. The result is the disappearance of the Found Yuppie in fields of nonrepresentational mark making that tremble on the brink of landscape and figuration.
M.A. Peers’s recent return to near-total abstraction is exemplified by her painting Given: Mel’s Hole (2008), which was created for the author’s themed museum exhibit “Aspects of Mel’s Hole: Artists Respond to a Paranormal Land Event Occurring in Radiospace.” During this same period, Peers has re-immersed herself in the world of competitive dog shows, as well as a full spectrum of performance-based dog activities. Her most recently initiated series of works brings her full circle to an engagement with the stochastic system of aesthetic criteria that constitute the AKC breed standards—specifically that of her current show dog of choice, the whippet. Consisting of uncommissioned, large-scale portraits of the currently leading whippets in the American dog world, Peers’s newest paintings reinsert the complex politics of representation and visual hierarchies addressed in her earlier works into the real-time particulars of her current engagement with a parallel world of aesthetic observation, manipulation, assessment, and ranking. It is a particular experiment to see what can be gleaned from superimposing these deeply related but divergent ways of ordering the phenomenal world. But it is merely one part of Peers’s ambitious, uncompromising, and ongoing investigation into what must be jettisoned and what may be retained of the power of picture making after the end of Art.
*M.A. Peers in conversation with the author, August 2010.
Doug Harvey first met M.A. Peers in 1986, when he was the nude model for a figure drawing class in which she was enrolled. They have collaborated productively ever since. Harvey graduated with an MFA in painting from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1994. Since then, he has written extensively about the Los Angeles and international art scenes and other aspects of popular culture, primarily as the art critic for LA Weekly, the largest circulation free weekly newspaper in America. His art writing has also appeared in numerous other newspapers, magazines, books, and catalogs. Harvey’s curatorial projects have ranged from traditional gallery and museum exhibitions to programs of sound art, found and experimental film, performance, experimental radio, comix and zines, and a solo gallery exhibition in Los Angeles in which the artist was chosen by raffle. He has also been part of the curatorial collective at the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Harvey maintains an active art career, exhibiting his visual art locally and internationally, and participating in international experimental sound, radio, and film communities, as well as regularly teaching both studio practice and art theory.