Portrait Of an Artist

by Stuard Derrick

Excavating the Artifacts of Illusion


      Artifacts of antiquity have long been sources of aesthetic reference for painters, sculptors, poets, and filmmakers. Sculpture and architecture from ancient Egyptian, Etruscan, Greek, and Roman civilizations have influenced artists from the Italian Renaissance to the French Neoclassicists. The poetry of Keats and Byron reveal classical inspirations as diverse as Grecian urns and the metopes of the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. The smashed and reconstructed Portland Vase served as a model for the creations the pottery factory of Josiah Wedgwood. Nineteenth century American sculptor Horatio Greenough portrayed a semi-nude George Washington posed as a monumental Zeus. And Francois Truffaut based Jeanne Moreau's enigmatic smile in Jules et Jim on an ancient stone statue.
      Much of the remnants of antiquity exist in shattered, fragmented form. Many of the most famous sculptures of classic Hellenic civilization are truncated, incomplete relics. Architecture of the ancient era, through millennia of conquest and corrosion, leave only a hint of former glory. In his fascinating new exhibition at the Robyn Watson Gallery in Provincetown's East End, artist Peter Macara incorporates themes of fragmentation, damage, and erosion in his intricately worked collages of broken tile, cracked architectural borders, and weather-worn frescos. "My work reflects my fascination with damaged objects from antiquity," explains Macara. "I do representations of fictional relics based on my firsthand experiences of seeing objects of antiquity in museums and from traveling. These are my impressions filtered through the memory of these objects. Very old, scattered, and unique remains of civilizations past are often severely damaged by the forces of time. My collages create images in which the original forms are still suggested, although incomplete."
     Macara works with a variety of materials to create his images. "I'll employ fresco work with modern materials," he explains. "For example, I'll use joint compound with acrylics. Recently I've been using torn mat board and museum board, which provide you with a broken relief surface to paint on. I almost always use acrylics to paint on different supports - sometimes on canvas, sometimes on paper or boards, or sometimes on irregular cutouts of plywood made to look like chunks of stone. As a caveat, I am aware of the archival quality of the material I use, and I try to create a very stable product that is going to last."
Explaining the creative process of his work, Macara relates, "I start in a very traditional manner with a drawing done in charcoal, and I work out the composition. This is a flexible medium and allows you to make changes. When I feel that I have an interesting composition, I start tearing mat board and fitting it in like a jigsaw puzzle. In the composition I very often include indications of cracks, lines, and masses where I envision hunks of plaster or limestone. Sometimes I will glue things to the canvas, and sometimes they are just straight paintings. I also use a computer in working out ideas for tile patterns or repetitive tessellated patterns. I'll work out these ideas on the computer screen using a graphics tablet as my sketch pad. Collage presages what people do with computers - 'cut and paste'. There is no limit to what you can place into the work. Working in this way, removing and adding material, arranging as I go, allows me greater creativity with the composition."
     Macara is a lifelong resident of Provincetown and grew up surrounded by an artistic environment. "I'm from a fishing family, my father is Portuguese and my mother comes from French-Canadian roots," he states. "I grew up on Brewster Street in an atmosphere of art and artists. My first summer job was as a model for various artists: R.H. Ives Gammel, Robert Douglas Hunter, and Henry Hensche. I used to eavesdrop on Hensche's classes as a kid; he was a real autocrat. Fritz Bultman lived in my neighborhood. Seong Moy, a Chinese-American printmaker, had an art school on Brewster Street; and Hensche's Cape School of Art was nearby on Pearl Street. Lillian Orlowsky and Bill Freed had a house next door to mine, and Fred Tasch, an early director of the Art Association, was also a neighbor - he gave me my first set of acrylics."
     "I had an early aptitude for drawing," he continues. "For recreation I used to go to the beach with my sketchbook, go to the dunes and sketch from nature. My early experience was self-taught, but I was critiqued by the artists who lived around me." Macara entered college at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, as an engineering student, but changed his major to Fine Art after viewing a faculty exhibition by various teachers in the art department. Macara graduated with two BFAs, in Studio Art and Art Education. While at college, he developed a friendship with Cape artist John Grillo, a student of Hans Hofmann. "I got an insider's view of what it was like to be an exhibiting artist," he explains. "It solidified my feeling that I could be a professional artist." Under Grillo's guidance, Macara created murals with cartoon and fantasy imagery on the U.Mass campus. He has exhibited locally at the Cortland Jessup Gallery, the Fine Arts Work Center (where he was a Fellow in 1978-79), the Art Association, and the Robyn Watson Gallery. His work has also been shown at the Marie Pellicone Gallery in New York, the James R. Bakker Gallery in Boston, Veerhoff Gallery in Washington, DC, and Osaka, Japan, as part of Jessup's Art Bridge project.
     His recent trip to Japan evinces Macara's continual fascination with travel and the exposure to antiquities and ancient civilizations that provide much of the inspiration for his refreshingly unique form of artistic expression. He speaks of viewing the life-size army of terra cotta warriors and horses guarding the burial mound of a Chinese emperor in Xian, China; the Alhambra in Spain, which served as the inspiration for the work entitled Granada, which incorporates Moslem calligraphy; the extensive collections in London's British Museum ("I'm a real hound for visiting museums," he laughs); and a trip through Europe following the route of the Orient Express during a period when Eastern Europe was emerging from under the cloak of Communism. A trip to Egypt particularly influenced his work: "When I was in Egypt I noticed that a lot of the wall paintings were painted on limestone with water-based colors, and I thought I could do something similar. I also saw a mosaic fountain that was truly wonderful and inspired the painting, Cairo."
     "Travel knocked me for a loop," he says. During this period of his life, Macara also constructed a studio near the cemetery on Alden Street. "The experience of making the building influenced me in thinking about how an art object is constructed. I became concerned with its presence as a physical object. I started looking at dimensions more carefully, the thickness of it. My paintings are like physical objects taken from architecture or an archeological site. Of course they are fictional, but I pay close attention to the physical makeup of the object. The experience of constructing a building woke me up to this aspect of my work."
     "I've been an abstract artist since my years as an art student," he continues. "Since the mid-1970s I've been primarily an abstract artist. The things I do now are very representational, but the subject matter is abstracted. It's not like being a figurative painter who starts with nature and makes an abstraction from that; for me, I start with a very abstract concept and make a very literal picture of it. I imagine an abstracted segment of some fragment, and I present it to you in such a way that I make it believable as an object. I rely heavily on creating an illusion that uses very traditional values of light and shadow. I coined a term 'abstract illusionist,' that still applies to my work. I see people who look at my work and they want to reach out and touch it, not knowing if they are looking at an object or a picture. It's very representational, but very often has relief qualities."
     "I never seem to catch on to how to do things the easy way," he says. "I sweat the details. I put a lot of energy into each piece to make it unique, successful, and worried over. I start a piece, and I come back to it later. It grows over a long period of time - very often my painting carries over for many months. I'm fascinated by antiquity in that most of the artists are anonymous. These are the artists that intrigue me the most. You don't necessarily have to attach a name to the artwork to enjoy it. I want people to be more focused on the art. It's not about me. I'm much more interested in doing something that gives viewers a really interesting experience. I don't want them to come away remembering my name. That's not what my art is about. Perhaps that's my downfall," he laughs, "but there you have it."

The work of Peter Macara is part of a group exhibition on display August 24 through September 13 at the Robyn Watson Gallery, 432 Commercial Street.


©Provincetown Magazine - Vol. 24.20, August 23, 2001. Reprinted with permission of the author, Stuard Derrick.

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