Peter van Straten is a South African artist whose work I find remarkable.
In the video that appears below, Peter begins by saying, “The purpose of looking at art is not to understand the artist, but to understand yourself.” Until I heard him make that statement, I gave no thought to how that is, perhaps, why his paintings affect me on so many levels.
Because while looking at them, I am also looking at myself, understanding myself from wholly different perspectives.
Peter’s interest, it seems is in “illustrating the human condition.” I could elaborate on this, but I’d rather use Peter’s own wording when describing his desire “to celebrate, with a single iconic image, each uniquely intriguing facet of human existence.” He goes on to state that such an aim would require lifetimes to achieve, but that his favorite “word in the English language is Nympholepsy, which, to paraphrase the Oxford dictionary, is ecstasy or madness caused by pursuit of the unattainable.” Thus, the word seems to fit his intention quite well.
His paintings reveal fascinating perspectives, elements of “magical realism,” humor, metaphor, and a profound sense of irony. Yet, as much as I love all those things, I find myself especially drawn to the astounding beauty of his work.
Somehow Peter seems to imbue each painting with the essence of his unattainable and ironic aim so that the exquisite colors and the prodigious skills used to create each iconic image does, in fact, celebrate an intriguing facet of human existence. His paintings don’t merely engage the intellect, they don’t just appeal to me visually or aesthetically, but they also have an emotional impact.
I feel something – a sense of calm, curiosity, awe, wonder – whenever I look at Peter’s work.
And that is an enviable talent.
It’s not uncommon to find someone who employs one or more of those elements mentioned above, but to use them and to also create such beauty at the same time, that is what makes Peter van Straten’s paintings so exceptional.
Below are Peter’s responses to a few questions. I hope you enjoy his insights as much as I do. And I hope you’ll take the time to savor his paintings (and I’d strongly urge you to visit his website, as there are many more extraordinary paintings there).
Email Interview with Peter van Straten
Watch (and listen to) THIS VIDEO which offers “an introduction to the paintings of Peter van Straten. The paintings he describes are breathtaking and his commentary is insightful and equally beautiful.
OTHER COOL BIRDS: What are you painting for?
PETER van STRATEN: I feel as if I’ve seen a glimpse of something altogether bigger and more beautiful than the world I daily occupy, and I’ve always felt a terrible urgency about somehow representing in my work the indescribable glimpse I’ve “seen/felt”.
I feel like a man who once had a god whisper a very important story into his ear, and then spends the rest of his days trying to remember and write down bits and pieces of the story so that none of its beauty goes to waste. This “sense of somewhere else” is sometimes accompanied by an almost violent loneliness, but again it is the making of art that stills it, because art acts as a bridge between oneself and others, even if it is art about the unknown!
OCB: If you could work on any art project what might it be and why?
PETER: This year I finally launched the project I’ve always wanted to work on: it’s called Psycho Pop, and after twenty years of almost monastic dedication to painting it has become an absolutely crucial outlet for all the creativity that can’t possibly fit into my painting. For Psycho Pop (ostensibly a studio band project) I create songs, music videos, short films, poems and photographs, and it necessitates daily interaction with my audience whereas painting can be unhealthily insular.
OCB: Young Adult author, Jacqueline Woodson says that writers tend to focus on the time in our lives we’re still working through. Is there an element of truth to Woodson’s claim, perhaps, as it relates to a theme/focus that resonates with you now that might have been formed by something in your past? If so, how?
PETER: I agree that art is by definition autobiographical, but at the same time I’ve always been more interested in illustrating the human condition – in all its tragicomic splendour – rather than my own life, which I can’t help feeling shouldn’t be of much interest to anyone, and indeed isn’t of much interest to myself!
OCB: Does your work, overall, reflect your personality in some way? If so, would you elaborate on that?
PETER: One’s “personality” is multi-faceted, and is therefore represented in different ways by different forms of activity. For instance in my oil painting I use a technique called “glazing” in which one builds up tones and colours and details very slowly and cautiously over many months. This means that one circles possibilities, making small, cautiously experimental changes, rather than committing to any quick or dramatic gestures, and because I am very cerebral and philosophical as a person, this is also how I approach my life…
Conversely, in my photographs and poems and music videos I celebrate found objects and anything magical within the mundane, and I don’t labour much over decisions or worry about technical excellence. Instead I remain utterly committed to playfulness and uncaring about the work’s critical reception. And so in general my work would appear to be an attempt at creating balance by satisfying totally contradictory parts of my personality. It is as much an attempt to flee what I hate about this reality (callousness and lack of playfulness in humans, and the “ordinary” burdens of physicality such as time and gravity) as it is a celebration of the things I love so passionately: unspoiled nature, humour, kindness, mystery, music, and the extraordinary human mind . . .
OCB: Aside from your main website (which can be found here), are there any websites we should visit to see more of your work?
PETER: “Psycho Pop” (website link here) keeps growing as I make new songs (next release “Handgun” on 1st July ) and videos, and posting poems and photographs. If I keep going Psycho Pop will eventually become an immense and wonderful Theme Park for the Mind – for anyone with an intellect that is as playful as it is curious.
While my paintings express a longing almost for another dimension, Psycho Pop is a celebration of reality as it is.
OCB: What technique did you use to create “The Nest?”
PETER: The painting “The Nest” was made through the technique of ‘glazing’ in oils.
I work on canvas that is primed by hand with large, bold brush strokes then sanded very smooth. This means that I simultaneously have the appearance of texture beneath the many thin layers of paint applied as the months go by, but also a very smooth final surface, reminiscent of the painting s of the old masters. My process is cinematographic in that I first create the “location” or set in which the protagonists will later appear. I slowly build up the atmosphere in the piece by proceeding with subtle changes in tone and colour, taking great care not to extinguish (through the application of too much paint) the light that emanates from the original primed surface. It is this gradual and miserly application of paint that accounts for the glow my paintings have. When I am happy with the light and tone of the piece I add the protagonist at the end, making sure that the “actor” or “actress” that poses is responding to their environment in the most believable way.