Annemarie Seauzau 1999
An Encaustic Color Field
How Foreign (1997) is the title of a painting in encaustic by Peter Flaccus. Question or exclamation?
Perhaps self-description, being American by birth and education, yet with that latin name, Flaccus, and even something in his appearance familiar from Roman headstones.
Some years ago Peter Flaccus left the New World for the Old, and for the heart of the Empire, Rome. When he arrived from New York he was painting with oils on canvas, in rhythmical, abstract gestures of ochre, blue, and gray. The space in these paintings was – and still is in his work – American, the legacy of de Kooning and Reinhardt’s abstract expressionism. Free from any compositional centrality, the pictorial space is conceived as a continuous field, in which the motifs expand unbounded, beyond the borders of the canvas and the confines of the wall, to the four winds, to infinity.
Once in Rome, Peter Flaccus took up – or rather let himself be taken up by – one of the ancient techniques of picture making, encaustic (the others being mosaic and fresco.) This meant adapting encaustic to the requirements of a modern pictorial space, exploring the mysterious possibilities of beeswax applied to wood, immersing his art in a tradition while renewing that tradition with his personal repertory of gesture and color.
The first compositions in encaustic differed little from his works in oil. But soon the calligraphy turned more fluid and free, as the pure beeswax tends to demand, being neither opaque nor transparent, but as sensitive and impressionable as the human spirit. Let’s not forget that first Descartes and later Freud compared the human mind to wax, on which is impressed all of our psychic experience. And, more recently, didn’t the invention of records literally entrust to the malleable grooves in wax the memory of musical vibrations?
Heating the wax, mixing in the pure pigments, applying it to the wooden panel, then scraping it away to create almost transparent layers, sometimes even revealing the underlying wood, finally laying on forms in relief, emblems and tracery, stems and tendrils, enigmatic braiding in ultramarine, Mallarméan sky-blue, imperial reds and snowy whites. Behind the pure abstraction and historical references (from the villas of Pompeii to paleo-Cristian catacombs), there remains the memory of North America introduced as landscape: the frothy blond abundance of the field in May, the sleety monochrome of Chinook (an Indian name denoting the warm wind that can appear suddenly in the middle of winter, melting the snow as if by magic), or the vertiginous spires of Diver in a watery blue-black more evocative of Melville’s ocean than the Mare Nostrum of Homer.
Still, the artist more willingly cites his adopted latin culture: the shadowy blues of the forest of the faun, and fiery reds and yellows (Our Luxury, Centuries of August, Amber Thread). He achieves the purest simplicity in certain very pale paintings in which a delicate network overlays a lightly articulated background; the combination produces openings of honeyed light, fantasmagorical apparitions out of nothing, purely visual yet distinctly corporeal, as in Alabaster Chambers, or Slant of Light. But just as interesting are the very most recent experiments, using stronger colors and more physical, vehement gestures.
A passionate osmosis between tradition and radical reinvention: in this duality, Peter Flaccus, working in Rome, reminds me of Boecklin in Tuscany (I’m thinking of his Pan among the Reeds) or Sol Lewitt in Umbria (his Wall Drawings using the colors of Assisi).
Two years ago, invited to participate in a group exhibition dedicated to Horace, at the Museo Oraziano at Licenza, in the Roman countryside, Peter Flaccus had the opportunity to "converse" with his namesake, the poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, a coincidence of identity enviable to his Italian-born colleagues!
One of the works shown there by Flaccus, Peter, has as its title Con Ali Insolite, cited from a late Ode of Flaccus, Horace, "A Farewell to Maecenas." While treating death, the ultimate farewell, the splendid ode rejects the realm of darkness, for the poet knows he is destined for the luminous and eternal realm of memory: "On uncommon wings I will soar in the limpid air, I, poet of two faces ...I shall not die." His poet’s body will grow white feathers and down, and, "more secure than Icarus," will fly over land and sea, from Africa to the northernmost reaches. In the painting Con Ali Insolite, the encaustic in the hand of the painter returns to its mythic origin as beeswax clothing Icarus, in the service of the most hazardous of all flights: that of art. With two essential colors, azure and white, the soft feathers mixed with wax take metaphorical shape and vibrate in the clear sky over the Aegean and over the cities of the Tiber, azure as the last years of the pagan era of Horace, azure as the sky even today over Peter Flaccus’s Roman studio.