Lennie Peterson’s “Synesthesia,” on view through October 15 at the Narrows Art Center in Fall River, Massachusetts, is a must-see exhibition of over 40 original mixed-media drawing-paintings (and a few reproductions of originals in Giclée on board), a hanging sculpture and a behind-the-scenes video of Peterson at work.
In the video, we see Peterson creating with a live-performance format, which he is now famous for doing, and get a glimpse of some of his lesser known and fascinating practices. There is a revelation in the video: he takes a substrate and places it in water and sand in a beach environment, allowing the materials to arrive at a natural unrehearsed condition. This act is important because it is Peterson’s fundamental guiding force — flow.
The exhibition itself features some of Peterson’s best-known and best-loved portraits of many iconic musical figures, including Gustav Hoist, Franz Schubert, John Coltrane, Amy Beach, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday and Igor Stravinsky. Peterson’s ‘scapes’ are imaginative city landscapes that blend the fullness of cross-cultural human activity with a strong emphasize on repetitive line-making zazen and symbolic language.
As expected with Peterson, the exhibition is more than a visual art presentation. The core principle that moves him is communication. He is interested in exposing the weight of sound language. Peterson is showing us that sound has a physical structure that can be felt by the body and seen in the mind’s eye. In other words: sound has shape. But unlike other artists who create abstract works to explore visual sound, Peterson does it by spotlighting the musical artists who create the sound, and their history.
To create sound-shape, he builds up pictures through the practice of controlled spontaneity in that he allows creative flow to dominate his visual and musical production. But it’s all held together by a trained and firm structure. Although his drawings appear at first reading to be easy to make in that the lines move effortlessly from one point to another, the act of constructing an image in this format requires staying in a condition of deep interior/exterior awareness in meditative balance. In his exhibition statement, Peterson stated that “Synesthesia” is “an experience by one of the five sensory system while encountering stimuli through another sensory system. Whether listeners full realize it or not, the key in which a musical composition is written gives it a ‘feel’ of its own. The relation between color and key can be affected by this neurological phenomenon in which different notes stimulates the perception of different color. This is occasionally brought to fruition in terms of visual art, and some musicians and artists often seek to match color and shape of their music equivalents.”
Of all the ‘Mindscape’ environments created by Peterson and featured in “Synesthesia,” it is “Blue Monk” that holds the status of masterwork. The picture is a diptych with a larger vertical rectangular composition at the bottom and a smaller vertical panel across the top. In this drawing-painting, the color palette is a variation of blue-black. The entire composition is made up of nearly 20 smaller, possibly more, pictures: architectural structures that range from Classical European to Asian, abstracted scenes as well as finely detailed line-realism, hard-edged geometric spaces and shapes along with rounded and organic human and animal motif, and an abundance of radiating circles which serve as markers of introspection and dream-condition.
“Blue Monk” is bountiful in how within a single piece it contains a showcase of Peterson’s diverse drawing capabilities. He has mastered everything from the quick sketch to the cartoon to the fine-line drawing as well as color washes and the inventive manipulation of structural and illusionary depth. “Blue Monk” itself is an American jazz standard by Thelonious Monk recorded in 1952. It is a perfect example of the cross-cultural musical form and American-modern structure of mid-century music that was powered by African American musical traditions and culture.
One of the most important elements of the exhibition, in its totality, is the extensive explanatory labels that accompany each picture to answer viewer’s questions about the subject. The labels are a practical necessity because some of the works appear esoteric and relevant only to Peterson and perhaps other trained musicians. For example, the portrait “Eroica (Funeral March)” is a picture of a female face in red. She has long hair and is wearing a hat and sunglasses. The label reads ‘funeral march’ but the women’s semi-parted lips gives the face a sexiness. Because of this element, it’s a confusing picture. Inside the sunglasses is a re-imagined musical score. For a non-musician, it’s a guess if the notes written out in the sunglasses refer to real music.
Peterson has created the same dynamic contradiction made by Beethoven in his celebrated work, the long, dramatic and unusual Eroica Symphony (1802-1804), a work that is celebrated as a transitional piece of art between the Classical and Romantic periods. The artwork label explains the portrait this way: “For the second movement of the symphony, Beethoven took the bold step to employing a funeral march. The music manuscript reflected in the eyeglasses of the model is the same as the original manuscript.” Likewise, as with Beethoven’s purpose, Peterson’s work pushes us into a discussion of culture and its relation to exterior personality and visual emotion. “I’ve placed this model into the context of the title of the artwork, the reference of death, in order to change the context and emotional value of her outer facade.”
Lennie Peterson’s portraits are complex and his working method is a fascinating expansive simplicity requiring focused practice and training to master. Even though the drawings are serious and intellectual, Peterson, the man, himself radiates out a relaxed, congenial and collaborative energy as he talks about his work.
JFM: DURING THE MAKING OF YOUR DRAWING/PAINTINGS HAVE YOU EVER ARRIVED AT A WALL/BLOCK THAT YOU COULD NOT SOLVE AT THAT PRECISE MOMENT DURING YOUR FLOW PROCESS? IF SO, WHAT DID YOU DO?
LP: I have to be honest and say that just doesn’t happen. For me, this is ALL about that “flow” process. It’s more free improvisation than anything that is consciously thought out or predetermined. So, that makes any creative blocks nonexistent. I never understood that concept of a creative block, to be honest. It’s a very meditative process where, once a basic shape or form is laid out, I just let my hand go free with all the details within those forms. I always compare it to a musician improvising on a song where there are basic chord structures given to play a solo. In the case of my art, I dictate the basic structure first, like the outline of a portrait or the overall structure of a painting, and then improvise within that form. There’s a great Picasso quote where he said something like, “To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing.” I draw a line and my hand takes over from there. I love that process. Oh, and my favorite Mozart quote, “I write like a sow piddles.” Creating and, especially, drawing and painting for me are as natural as breathing. The only wall against breathing is when the wall forced on you.
JFM: HAVE YOU EVER MADE A PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST THAT YOU DISLIKED? IF NOT, COULD YOU DO IT EVEN IF YOU DISLIKED THE MUSIC? IF YOU HAVE, CAN YOU SHARE THE EXPERIENCE?
LP: Oooh, yeah. I’ve done some commissions of musicians and people I don’t particularly care for. But it’s not about me. I recently got a commission for a portrait of a guitarist and I like how the portrait came out and, more importantly, the client loved it. But, I’m just not a big fan of that particular guitarist or his style or even his personality, rest his soul. It’s just my personal taste. But that’s about the extent of it — so far — anyway so, I’m pretty lucky in that way. The funniest part of that commission is that when the client hired me he told me I could “do whatever I want.” Not even a MENTION of a portrait and I got really excited. A month later, I sent him a photo of the painting I was working on for him, which took a massive amount of hours. I loved it so much I wanted to share it with him in progress. He wrote back and said, “What is this??” I wanted a portrait of so-and-so. It’s funny now. It wasn’t at the time.
JFM: MANY OF YOUR LARGER DRAWINGS ARE FILLED WITH SMALLER VIGNETTE MOMENTS – STORIES WITHIN THE STORY. HOW DO YOU ARRIVE AT THESE?
LP: That’s part of the “flow” I mentioned. So, what happens in that flow almost feels like it’s not up to me. I just trust my hand. Those weird, alien symbols and landscapes and architectural forms live somewhere inside my head. So, yeah. That’s scary, J. I like to think of my paintings as a thousand paintings in one painting. The free improvisation results in anything from design and shapes within shapes to full-out landscapes and worlds within worlds. The best part for me is how they morph into each other, one line leading into the next, one design or landscape into the next. I also compare the morphing and the process to dreaming. That’s why I like the byline “Mindscapes” for the title of this show. The process is so far removed from me I can look back on a painting or drawing a year later and not remember how I did it, where it came from or how the hell I had time to do it.
I have funny stories of people going into all kinds of crazy detail analyzing the meaning of the activities within these paintings. It obviously says more about them than it does me. I just scratch my head. Exploring the subconscious mind and how dreams happen and what the inner mind is capable of, especially related to music, is what it’s about for me. Like when I dream, I’m mostly fascinated by the process, not the analysis of the dream. I can let the shrinks do that. For me, it’s just about getting it out. Frida Kahlo believed her paintings were the frankest expression of herself. I’m with her on that.
JFM: IS IT ALWAYS THE MUSIC THAT DIRECTS THE IMAGE MAKING OR DO YOU ALSO PULL FROM THE ARTIST’S/SUBJECT’S LIFE AS WELL?
LP: It’s a combination of both. So far, as a musician myself, I’ve been fairly familiar with the lives of the musicians and composers I’ve done. But it’s not as important to me as representing the essence or “vibe” of the person combined with what’s coming out of my head subconsciously. I want the combination of the person’s expression, the color I use and the details, the paintings within the painting, to give off a mood about that subject and their music. It’s also about the concept of synesthesia for me. I mostly listen to music when I work and, most often, the music of that particular composer. But I see shapes when I hear music and that’s what’s happening with the design aspect of the paintings. When I get commissions from individual “lay people” — like the four women that are on exhibit here at The Narrows — I go through the same process but, obviously, without having the reference of their music.
JFM: MOST OF THE PORTRAITS ARE HALF-FACES, WHICH I PERSONALLY ENJOY. BUT WHY HALF?
LP: That’s a reference to my strong belief that we don’t teach history properly, J. My showing only half the face is my way of saying that no matter how well we think we know these people, we don’t know the half of it.
Whenever we look at any portrait, whether it’s the Mona Lisa or a Klimt or a Chuck Close or a 5-year-old’s portrait of their mom, it is their opinion only of how that person should be portrayed. When we look at any person or know any person, we know only half of that person at most. These great, iconic composers and musicians I have here, like Beethoven and Stravinsky and Philip Glass and Billie Holiday, we think we know them because of what history has taught us and what we hear in their music. But these people, just like any great historical figures and, for that matter, any human being, have a whole life going on inside that only they know. And even beyond what THEY think they know.
The teaching of history would be so much more vibrant and exciting if we would talk about history’s game changers as humans and not mythical, fictional characters. Imagine getting a history class’s attention with the fact that Nicola Tesla fell in love with a pigeon with red beams of light shooting out of its eyes? Now we’re talking a history class. These figures of Creative Genius have full and amazing lives both publicly and privately. The Josephine Baker portrait is an exception to that because I needed to get a full face of that particular expression I gave her. It was important for me, along with the vertical lines that represent prison bars in that painting. In my opinion, that expression on her face sums up her kick-ass life and her knowing she had the world by the balls. It wasn’t coming across in the half face format.
JFM: LET’S SAY SOMEONE WANTED A PORTRAIT OF TOM JONES. WOULD YOU LISTEN TO ‘HELP YOURSELF’ WHILE DRAWING TOM?
LP: Ha! I love that tune! Have you heard how the horn section is arranged on that? It’s killin’! The call and response between the low brass and high brass — the simple unison horn lines against pizzicato strings playing in the spaces of his vocals. Then that big band shout chorus in the middle of it all. I love it. The video is another thing. What is that? It’s like Hieronymus Bosh meets Willy Wonka meets Jack LaLanne dressed like a pirate. And the dancing girls appear. How could I NOT listen to that while doing a Tom Jones portrait? The only problem with Tom Jones is he has a lot of hair and I use a lot of detail. A portrait with a lot of hair takes a lot longer to complete a portrait than bald guys. The simple answer is yes, yes and yes. But late Tom Jones. Shorter hair.
(“Synesthesia: The Music Inspired Portraits and Mindscapes of Lennie Peterson” continues through October 16 at the Narrows Center for the Arts, 16 Anawan St., Fall River, Massachusetts. For more information, call (508) 324-1926 or visit lenniepeterson.com.)