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13 November 2013

Leta Peer, Painter

Originally published September 4, 2006

Art in America (September 2006) of Swiss artist Leta Peer's recent exhibition at the Augsburg Museum for Contemporary Art in Augsburg, Germany. I would like to draw attention to that, to her, and to post a slightly expanded and personalized version of the review here.

In my opinion, Leta Peer (pronounced "Lay-ta Pear"), a painter of wonderful, sensuous, images, is one of the best artists in central Europe. This exhibition is her first major solo museum show. In it she displays 8 oil paintings and 5 photos of installations with an additional "interaction" at the nearby Schaetzler Palais. Peer creates luscious, naturalistic paintings of mountains from her home area, the Swiss Engadine, a long mountain valley located in the Romansch -speaking part of the canton of the Grisons. Peer's works reflecting this setting are generally minutely small, 4 by 6 inches. Surprisingly, in this show, the paintings were all circa 47 by 71 inches.

What exactly are Peer's "interactions"? Well, they are installations or the records of temporary installations of paintings. The artist frequently hangs her oil paintings in contrasting sites such as ornate palace rooms, half-destroyed buildings, or, once, New York City's Grand Central Station. She photographs and exhibits oversized prints of these hangings as independent artworks. For this exhibition, Peer inserted paintings in a Rococo palace under renovation. Five of the photos of these insertions among the plastic drop-cloth covered surfaces, plaster chunks and half-pitted walls were printed at 39 x 55 inches, and included in the exhibition.

Peer works in a direction which it is almost entirely impossible to appreciate through reproductions, whether high quality photos or on-line. Composition can be appreciated, and therein the artist is highly creative, but her works are strongly dependent on appreciation of their scale and surface. Her oil paintings are not smoothly photorealistic, featuring instead sumptuous variations of glaze and impasto. Furthermore, they are not Romantic — the pathetic fallacy is never suggested. Most hackneyed representations of mountains attempt to encompass and control the image, conquer the summit, by making it emblematic — a simple, identifiable logo-like outline against a pleasing backdrop. In contrast, in a work such as Landscape No. 21, of 2005, Peer deemphasizes the outline of the mountains by allowing the peaks alone to rise into the painting at its bottom edge. This accentuates its vastness and intimates the vertiginous feeling one has in the Alps. The color is rich, but speaks of neither postcards nor Caspar David Friedrich. Peer's works combine the shimmering, pearlescent colors of Vermeer with the facture of Velásquez.

In the exquisite accompanying catalogue, titled To Inhabit a Place, Peer's work is described by exhibition curator Thomas Elsen as "startlingly" or "disturbingly beautiful." This is true due to the adverbs more than the adjective. The artist's paintings are unmistakably attractive, but unexpectedly so. Describe her scenic subject matter verbally and one anticipates artworks either formulaic or at least highly conservative. However, when directly, visually experienced, the paintings are refreshingly original. For Peer, the genre, mountain paintings, and her recuperation of it clearly operate metaphorically as a salvaging of vision itself. Although now living in urban Basel, Peer is truly seeing anew the area from which she comes, drawing back the veil of past cultural cliché.

Although quite successful, Peer is in no way as appreciated as I personally feel she should be. Perhaps that is due to her subject matter, her emphasis on "classic" technical facility, or simply the position of painting in the artworld today. Peer once said to me that a treasured teacher of hers commented that painters of her generation and younger were now going to have to carry on the theory, understanding and development of the discipline on their own, as so many curators simply no longer had a clue. If that is indeed so, then I propose that Peer is accomplishing an enchanting part of this task.

Consider a few of my friends: David Reed is achieving the painterly absorption of electronic-mediality; Wesley Kimler is realizing the great question of how to transume and extend Portrait and a Dream (rather than avoid it), painterly endeavor as aspiration; I'm grappling with the subsumption of installation and the political vernacular into painting; — and many more are with us. Peer, too, as she supplies an impressive, contemporary incarnation of ability, of mastery.

Image Info: Leta Peer: Landscape #21

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