Susan Stewart, June 1996
Time and the Painting
The gestures of the dead live in our own gestures. This is the practice and the theme that Peter Flaccus has pursued in his paintings. In his use of encaustic technique he continues a method and rhythm of work which has gone in and out of the consciousness of Western artists since the Greeks. The Greek term enkaustikos, or "burning in," refers to the thermal treatment at the end of a process in which molten beeswax is mixed with pigments and at times resins, then kept fluid as it is brushed upon a surface and manipulated. Here the painter applies the hot colored wax to a wooden board until the wax is cool and fixed. He subsequently adds layers of color and of the then scrapes back through these layers, until gestures of covering and uncovering create a luminous surface which both reflects and absorbs external light. Pliny's natural history records the method and the unusual durability of surfaces produced by this technique, noting that paint applied to ships in this way could not be destroyed by the action of sun, or brine, or wind.
Peter Flaccus's paintings thereby produce an extraordinary effect of an immediate, radiant, human presence and an elusive glimpse into layers of time – the time of his own making rising to the surface as his intentions are made manifest in the resulting imagery, and the time of past makers, past gestures, including his own, suspended in the deeper layers of the work. The painter therefore moves away from the conventions of painting as window and painting as relief, away from both representations and accumulation of material, toward a pure relation to color and light.
Color and light acquire their own functions, relational within the frame of the single work and independent of reference. As the eye moves from trace to trace of the painter's movement in time, certain effects of depth and emergence are created. Beneath the luminous surface of the work, the eye traverses varying areas of opacity and transparency. At times the surface of the wooden base is visible; at times a wax-filled gash draws the attention as steadily as a scar. Organic imagery and the colors associated with Roman light – sepia, gold, gray, red and ochre – produce a sense of cultural fossilization, as if ruin had been stayed by the luminous application of wax. The pilgrim's scallop shell, the whorl of hair on an infants's skull, the snail's architectural curve – somewhere on the threshold of nature and culture, an animal gesture became an intended action. The ephemerality of memory, something like the quickening of memory itself, is captured in the painter's gestures made in and of these layers of color.
Descartes thought of a malleable ball of wax as a model for the impressionable mind; Freud compared the unconscious to a wax tablet on which are inscribed faintly visible traces of experience. Each gesture the painter has made here "counts" or matters, each gesture is an indeterminate trace of human presence. The viewer is approached within a palpable human scale, yet the paintings are monumental in their accrual of associations. Created within a culture of waste and decay, Peter Flaccus's paintings are paintings of duration, durable and radiant records of human making.