Painting empty spaces


Installation, Edward Thorp Gallery, 1996

Installation, Edward Thorp Gallery, 1996

Peter Waite
Edward Thorp Gallery

Peter Waite's seventh solo show in New York is a human allegory devoid of humans, painted in a button-down realism that brings to mind some unexpected blend of early 80's representation – say, Mark Tansey, Troy Brauntuch and Eric Fischl. The results don't break ground, but they're decidedly affecting.

Mr. Waite favors quietly oppressive images of empty institutional spaces, places not too pleasant to be in: board rooms, operating rooms, offices, a jury box, prison cells, an execution chamber and long views of prison hallways and cellblocks, including a particularly decrepit and daunting view of Eastern State Penitentiary, in Philadelphia, lately featured in the film "Twelve Monkeys." (According to the gallery literature, all are real and have been visited by the artist.)

Lighter moments, but not by much, are provided by images of a casino, a squash court, a high school gymnasium, a classroom with a banner announcing "Klingon Language Institute" and a poolside view of a resort.

In one way or another, these images evoke questions of authority, control, morality and, well, fate, while indicting a great deal of architecture and design.

Painted on small unframed aluminum panels that are a little institutional themselves, they are more convincing, at least collectively, than Mr. Waite's previous mural-size works.

Their physical modesty belies their psychological weight, while their intimacy, enhanced by the ways in which they are cropped, places the viewer on the scene, thinking about what it means to be in these places and the troubles most of them have seen.

–The New York Times
July 5, 1996

The color of remoteness


Peter Waite
Edward Thorp Gallery

Peter Waite's realist paintings on aluminum have the chilly glamour of film noir movies. Waite's subjects include gambling casinos, prison cells, corporate board rooms and sports-related sites such as pools and gyms.

All of these places are presented as devoid of both people and feeling, and this remoteness is meant to suggest the overall emotional tenor of post-industrial life.

What distinguishes this work is its exquisite use of color and mood: Waite makes his hues rattle around in the emptiness of the scenes they depict.

In "Casino (Foxwoods)," he perfectly conveys a familiar sense of run-of-bad-luck resignation, using a dull purple to render a set of padded swivel stools standing forlornly in a casino.

In a painting of a classroom at the Klingon Language Institute, Waite uses a drab classroom brown as a way of underscoring the ridiculousness of a Trekkie obsession trying to pass itself off as adult education.

In "Surgery," Waite gets at the irony implicit in those institutional green walls: Though meant to be soothing, they only succeed in evoking the trauma of hospitalization.

In "The Gallies/Big Cheshire," one of several prison scenes, the use of an almost romantic shade of blue invests a death-row walkway with a fateful, meeting-one’s-maker sort of light.

Waite hangs his 35 paintings almost floor to ceiling, and this profusion of images maps out contemporary American culture as a place in which class distinctions are extreme, yet slippery.

For example, the viewer may juxtapose "Off Shore Bank (Bahamas)" with "Old Death Row" and think: Class is rigid, there are masters and slaves. But at the same time, crap tables, gyms, squash courts, video rooms, and nutty places like the Klingon Language Institute all suggest the fluidity of today's leisure society.

Waite's overriding metaphor may be best represented by the pale, silvery color of his aluminum-backed panels, suggesting that, ultimately, contemporary society is one big gray area.

–Time Out New York
July 1996

Views of power


Peter Waite
Damon Brandt Gallery

Couched in history, Peter Waite uses the vocabulary of the past to speak to the present. He has chosen cultural institutions as his subject, but he uses them, not only as embodiments of power, but as repertoires of collective social memory as well. Waite is not merely a painter of history.

Using the veracity that a photograph seemingly implies, he presents paintings that are charged evocations of the mechanisms of power. Politics and art do, indeed, make creative bedfellows.

Waite's father, a historian of Nazism, took him around Europe to view the monuments of power and purpose, and these experiences have infused his work. His subjects are painted from personal memory. They are documents that demand discourse.

Typically, Waite's work is devoid of human presence. Drawing on historical places, Waite transfers meaning squarely onto structure. His richly detailed paintings, composed of panels constructed with a wry touch -- tiny, jeweled-head watch screws -- reflect his primary formalist concern -- the grid and the matrices of 17th century painting.

"Walhalla," after the memorial to Ludwig I, is a grim, imposing stone edifice whose atmosphere is palpable. "Walhalla" vividly captures Teutonic gloom and recalls Kiefer's early, monumental work. And like Kiefer, it is a reference, not a celebration.

Drawn from a Fascist building of the '40s in Rome, "Corridor" presents a visual articulation of anomie. "Corridor" is clearly that of power, with its insidious, limpid pools of eerie reflective light. It is a clinical, yet lush depiction that is disturbing, like a still from Bertolucci’s "The Conformist."

"Lessons of the Fourth Estate" is a document of an actual painting, "The Fourth Estate, 1902," that became the most recognized image of the labor movement in Italy. Waite places the social realistic painting in its current museum setting, Villa Reale, in Milan. It is a painting within a painting within a painting. Transformed by the museum setting from document to decoration. Waite renegotiates the defusion of the impact of the original through his sharp choice of composition. Using the matrices of 17th-century painting, the workers in Waite's "Lessons" confront us today, just as they did in 1902.

Peter Waite's paintings speak to monumentality, the power of placement, and the meta-order inside architectural structure. They are coded mirrors in which to view our own reflections.

– Flash Art
March/April 1991

Station/Milan, 1992, 8x 8 feet, acrylic on panels

Station/Milan, 1992, 8x 8 feet, acrylic on panels

When we depart from a train and ascend an escalator and walk through the building toward the street, we exist within someone else's idea of the ideal train station, someone else's idea of efficiency and beauty.

It is an ideal that may have originated in the fascist's perversion of classical architecture, as one of Waite's recent works suggests.

In his painting and works on paper, the artist finds a way to frame and thus reveal the intentions, assumptions, and fantasies that have been encoded into every structure and structured place we inhabit, visit, or pass through.

He focuses on the collisions between then and now, here and there - the segmenting of time and what it says about us.

–John Yau
excerpted from catalog essay
“Hand Painted Images for Ozymandias' Album”

The Lessons of the Fourth Estate, 1990, 8 x 10 feet, acrylic on panels  Courtesy of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

The Lessons of the Fourth Estate, 1990, 8 x 10 feet, acrylic on panels

Courtesy of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art



"The Lessons of the Fourth Estate" shows an interior of the Villa Reale in Milan that houses "The Fourth Estate" (1902), one of a series of paintings with political and social themes by Pellizza da Volpedo (1868-1907).

The picture was purchased in 1920 through public subscription, but its display was banned by the Fascists. In the 1960s and 1970s, "The Fourth Estate" began to enjoy a renewed admiration in progressive circles and has become an icon for political radicals of the class struggle.

It shows an expressly nonviolent march on the part of the peasants or workers -- as differentiated from the other three estates of nobility, church and bourgeoisie.

Pellizza's emphasis falls both on the solidarity of the masses and on their individual humanity and particularity.

Waite's use of this poignant image, a sidelong view of Pellizza's painting and its partial reflection in a mirror, gives us the eternal verity of the moment that cannot be overlaid by subsequent events.

The mirror could not possibly reflect the central protagonists directly to where the viewer notionally stands; yet a time-honored function of the mirror in Western painting is to present the truth undistorted.

So, Waite argues, while the museum absorbs and aestheticizes Pellizza's clamorous voice, taming its revolutionary fervor, "The Lessons of the Fourth Estate" breaks through even the dustiest storehouse to which history has consigned it.

–Patrick McCaughey
from the book "The Spirit of Genius",
Art at the Wadsworth Atheneum

Sorbonne, 1994, 4 x 8 feet, acrylic on panels

Sorbonne, 1994, 4 x 8 feet, acrylic on panels

At a time when painting wavers between doctrine and decoration, Peter Waite’s work applies both ironic humor and discipline to a more fundamental task: sharing a visual record of remembered experience. His large scale paintings since 1987 have dealt with places that embody public sentiment or ideological concerns. Stadiums, monuments, cemeteries, formal gardens, as well as public housing and industrial landscapes are some of the locations that provide his recurrent theme of ‘Personal/Social Memory’. By omitting figures from the representation, Waite emphasizes the viewer’s participation as witness to the moment. In these paintings we always seem to be just arriving—a first impression that lasts, or just leaving—taking one last look.

Produced on plastic panels, aligned and nailed in varying forms of a grid, Waite’s work evokes the mural, but a careful thinness of paint contradicts the weight of often monumental subjects. His rendering rewards close study with a loose, gestural and painterly freedom, yet resolves at distance into an implacable fact of seeing. Waite examines his subjects dispassionately, extracting details that establish his own memory of the visit. With a secure footing in single point, photographic perspective, he first acknowledges and finally returns to the visual sense most of us think of a ‘normal’, but records these facts with a palette that usually favors less rather than more, and is adjusted to emphasize mood. By this slight shift to the subjective, yet avoiding emphatically any impressionist ethos, Waite’s paintings invite us to examine how well we know our own habits: of looking, of remembering, and of being certain.

–Stewart Crone
from the essay “The Imagination in Custody”,
Carl Solway Gallery, Cincinnati, OH
April 16 – June 4, 1994