Tanja Lelgemann (2013)
Peter Flaccus: The Changing Earth

Madagascar, The Islands, and The Alps, three monumental diptychs, are the most recent works by Peter Flaccus, a New York artist who has lived in Rome for some twenty years. The titles suggest that we have before us three landscapes that differ among themselves in nature and geography. But the absence of a boundary between sky and earth, and the absence of a fixed point of view, tell us that these are not true landscapes. They might instead be aerial views; maybe we are looking at valleys and three-dimensional forms of the earth or another planet from above, or cells enlarged by the lenses of a microscope. Something similar is evident in certain earlier, smaller works, for example Crater (2008) and Ellipse (2011), that serve the artist as experiments, even though they are wholly realized, autonomous works. Peter Flaccus explores the universe both in its wholeness and in its details. His interest in universality is in keeping with the very idea of the modern artist, who here in Italy, beginning with the Renaissance, is seen not as a simple craftsman but as an intellectual and theoretician.

Innumerable associations come to the artist as he works, and the paintings' titles are inspired by apparently minor features. In the diptych Madagascar, the lighter inner area vaguely recalls the shape of Africa, while the island Madagascar would be the little square on the lower right, and the colors remind us of Indian and African fabrics. In The Islands, forms made from thick layers of melted wax float on a gray background. The three-dimensional relief underscores their materiality. Green dominates the palette of contrasting colors, reinforcing the impression of emerging land viewed from above. The Alps is practically the inverse of Madagascar, in that its center remains empty while the periphery is a great swirl of intense and dynamic color. Fragments of rock, valleys, lakes, forests, and the blinding light of glaciers arrange themselves in a vaguely geometric manner that recalls paintings by early European expressionists.

Reference to geographical and geological form, in differing ways, is a theme common to the work of many decades. We find the title Africa, for instance, already in the early 1990's. The works from his New York period, characterized by intensely colored fields and forms floating in space, are closely connected to his work of today, and recall, with a language all his own, certain formal characteristics of American abstract expressionism, which reached its peak in the 1950's. In the 1970's, at the beginning of his artistic journey, the work of Pop artists such as Warhol, Rauschenberg and Johns, and minimalists, land artists, and conceptualists like Smithson, Lewitt, Judd, and Stella, to name only a few, had dominated the American scene, somewhat eclipsing painting as an artistic genre. When work arrived from Europe – by artists of the transavanguardia, for example – that gave new energy to painting, Peter Flaccus found it too overtly figurative to serve as inspiration. His paintings in those years were still made of oil paint on canvas; they were abstract, direct, and energetic, and depended upon balancing calculation with instinctive abandon.

With his arrival in Italy at the beginning of the 1990's, Peter Flaccus fundamentally rejuvenated his painting through his discovery of the technique that quickly became his personal signature: encaustic. Perhaps this change had to do with the fact that in Italy an artist easily enters into contact with techniques, materials, and styles with deep roots in history. The technique of encaustic was described by Vitruvius and later by Pliny. Famously used in Pompeii and also in the Fayyum portraits from Egypt, in antiquity encaustic served not only for artistic purposes, but also to "coat warships," thanks to being "a paint that on ships resists sun, salts of the sea, and wind," and for the fact that with encaustic particularly vivid and luminous colors were obtained "to cheer up with bright tones the stern-posts (aplustri) of ships..." Peter Flaccus favors encaustic for the same reasons: its special way of rendering color, its translucency, and the material quality that the artist exploits in his original way, in works as early as Theories of Light (1997) in which thin and luminous layers are scraped away with determined, almost violent gestures.

In the recent diptychs, the fields of saturated color laid out with unrestrained strokes contain nearly biomorphic forms that seem to grow and develop before our eyes, as if the layers of colored wax continued slowly to change shape at the surface. This strong organic quality contrasts with a decisive geometric imprint. The pictorial space always has precise rectangular divisions, beginning with the choice of the diptych itself as the primary, governing geometry, as if Peter Flaccus wished to impose an overarching order upon otherwise total gestural freedom. This formal ambivalence derives from experiments realized in earlier works such as Red Wall White Line, or Jet (both from 2010), in the center of which we see a shape surrounded by lines, incisive and casual at the same time, that combine a reference to ancient Roman wall decorations with the verve of American painting. In these new diptychs we see an explosion of color and form, and all the experience and deliberation that Peter Flaccus has brought to maturity over the decades culminates in unprecedented compositional harmony.