Tanja Lelgemann, 2014
Return to Naples

The "return to Naples" evoked by the title of Peter Flaccus’ exhibition at the Intragallery is a symbolic one, a return to a major cradle of civilisation, to an archetypical city, a place that has made an intense impression on every artist who has visited it, even if only once. It was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who definitively captured the city’s appeal in his phrase "See Naples and die."

This city of ancient journeys, where the sea meets the land in a unique way, has been home to a multitude of peoples, from the Greeks to the French, Spanish and Venetians, and as such, it provides the ideal setting for an artist such as Peter Flaccus, who has always based his art upon a search for stimuli deriving from the most diverse aspects of life. This passion for new experimentation proved decisive more than twenty years ago, when the artist moved from New York to Rome and discovered the technique that would soon become his trademark and set him apart on the international scene: encaustic painting, which was described in writings as early as those of Vitruvius and was used in ancient Pompeii.

More than ten years ago, Peter Flaccus entitled one of his paintings Vesuvio. In the centre of the work, we see a sort of light-coloured volcanic crater surrounded by a surface in intense red, reminiscent of Pompeii red, a colour that would interest the artist a great deal over the following years. In his 2011 work Pompeii Scribble, simple, elementary lines are inscribed into a cinnabar red ground. With their explicitly primitive forms, these apparently random white lines against the intense red create an extremely strong visual impact.

These linear compositions represent a turning point in Flaccus’ art. They were inspired by the wall paintings of Pompeii and their capacity to express energy using thin, insubstantial lines that are nevertheless concise and effective. He had the opportunity to admire these paintings at the exhibition Roma, La Pittura di un Impero, which was held at the Scuderie del Quirinale in 2009. There is also a curious historical precedent to Peter Flaccus’ discovery. When New York artists of earlier generations, including Jackson Pollock, Clifford Still, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, were determined to revolutionise painting in the 1940's, they sought inspiration for a new form of painting in archaic and exotic cultures, and they too were struck by the frescoes from the Roman villas of Boscoreale that had recently arrived at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. With their monumentality and extraordinary style, these wall paintings made a fundamental contribution to the birth of American Abstract Expressionism. In a certain sense, Peter Flaccus continues the legacy of this movement, because for him, as for his "predecessors", the physical act of a painting being born becomes an "event" in itself, providing titles for individual works and cycles of paintings. Works such as Halo or Pool suggest cosmic phenomena such as eclipses or explosions. Other works, such as Curlew or Il Golfo, evoke seascapes full of life and movement. The molten wax invades the surface of the painting, dissolving or overlaying existing layers depending on the density of the respective pigments. The artist relinquishes complete control to allow the free development of natural effects that give rise to new formal possibilities and new discoveries. Thus the exceptional work Dreamer became a genuine self-portrait, in which the artist manipulated layers of wax to define the features of his own face, creating a portrait that at the same time is also a universal and mysterious landscape.

Peter Flaccus is fascinated by nature and science, and transforms the act of painting into a phenomenon that is simultaneously natural and scientific, in which the finished painting also represents the process with which it was created. The artist’s aim is to create an image that expresses the integrity of a natural phenomenon, thus contributing with a subtle sense of irony to the age-old debate over the supremacy of art or nature, affirming that nature is superior to art in its complexity and pure existence, which has no need to be interpreted.

In his recent work, Peter Flaccus combines his painting with an aspect that is the complete opposite of natural phenomena in conceptual terms: the use of antique frames, many of which actually originate from Naples. These frames symbolise the widespread prosperity of the eighteenth century under the Bourbon monarchy. This was a period when the great aristocratic families commissioned major works of art, and so various kinds of sumptuous gilded frames were produced in Naples. Having been made to accommodate portraits, sacred works and landscapes, these same frames now contain the modern, abstract work of Peter Flaccus, which could not be further removed from the painting of the periods in which they were made. While the artist follows an aesthetic approach that sets out to free itself from any convention in order to reinvent painting, baroque or neo-classical frames represent a cliché of traditional painting. Peter Flaccus works by inverting conventions. The frames no longer serve as decorative protection for artworks that demonstrate their owner’s social status. Instead, the artist creates paintings for the frames he has collected. The decorative structures of the frames often correspond to formal aspects of the corresponding compositions, creating an intense dialogue between "container" and "content".

The experiment only applies to his small-format paintings. The frame is not part of the pictorial space, but neither is it part of the real world outside the painting, so it acts as a filter between the two worlds, a sort of no man’s land between art and the world. The large-format works, such as Il Golfoor Madagascar, have no frames. With their tactile, organic nature, they evoke complex geological environments such as continents or landscapes. These are works that must directly measure themselves against the three-dimensional world in which we live.

Whilst his works generally refer to nature, Peter Flaccus also maintains an intense and practical dialogue with other artistic disciplines, an aspect that is emphasised in this catalogue, which includes a poem by Luigi Trucillo and a piece for solo violin composed by Lucio Gregoretti. As someone who plays the violin daily, Peter Flaccus applies an approach deriving from his musical experience to his painting. Playing music has taught him that in order to achieve given objectives, it may be counterproductive to add physical force to a movement. Instead, much can be gained by reducing physical energy to achieve fluid action in a state of relaxation.