Artists in Quarantine No. 3
“Far away from the merry-go-round of the market place, the only reasoning is to keep going on and stay safe”
Since the March lockdown Peter Clossick’s life has been cloistered. He has not left his house, apart from a few car journeys for food “click and collects”, to protect not only himself but his wife who has low immunity.
“The lockdown has sent me through mental somersaults,” he says. “The pandemic is absolutely horrific. I feel it’s like when my parents lived through World War II, when my mother was in Islington during the Blitz. It’s never happened in my lifetime since I am a typical baby boomer with all the privileges which that has entailed – I’ve never experienced a global crisis like this.
“I am more wary of people, when I do venture out, which is a form of fear. Lockdown reminds me of the helplessness of being out of control – how it was when I first left the protective environment of art school. You are out in the open where nobody knows you or is looking at what you do, totally on your own, isolated in the studio, not meeting anyone. I quite enjoyed it initially. There is an existential freedom of discovering who you are and a motivational drive mixed with hope. I can do what I like.”
“I found the lockdown mentally has been up and down like a yoyo – positive, negative, positive, negative. The activity which I am engaged in is not in the public arena. So being isolated, on my own is something I’ve really enjoyed.”
Peter’s studio is attached to his home in London’s Blackheath where he has lived for the past 40 years, so he could continue to work there. In one respect the lockdown was a blessing in disguise: he could paint a subject matter close to his heart. His daughter and grandson came to stay, providing a rare chance to become models for him.
“These paintings are quite private and tender, very different from my public image. Because the subject matter was so precious, I dropped back into an almost illustrational way of working. It’s challenging because when someone sits for you, you need to face up to their expectations. People feel that they are being damaged if you destroy an image of them!”
It has also been an opportunity to scroll through four decades of sketchbooks, reassess older paintings, and repaint them, studying his own development. He could reflect on the nature of true creativity, which he believes is much rarer than commonly thought.
Not only did lockdown curtail his social existence but his usual practice of working from a model or sitter could not continue. The contrast between direct observation and memory offered even more food for thought.
“I’ve always been suspicious of working from the mind’s eye,” Peter says.
“We are much more likely to generalise what we remember. If the subject is there in front of you, within your space, within your perception, you are so overwhelmed with detail. All sorts of areas come in to how you actually do perceive, how you bring together this mass of parts into a single whole and how you bring those two things together.
“Whereas when you work from memory you can dismiss all those peculiarities and just concentrate on the totality. I find that sort of dichotomy – that sort of play – very much an engaging mind thing. That is what the artist’s mind does – allows you to explore the relationship between the whole and the parts, fusing disparate parts into a whole –that is part of the goal. So, what is interesting is what is regarded as a totality, as a whole.”
Peter doesn’t refer to portraiture, but rather ‘head paintings’. The mystery of this art form, he says, is that you are enshrined in an abstraction of yourself. So what is the ‘self ‘?
“Capturing the spirit of the individual, the human head is one of the most difficult things to get down. It has so many moving parts; it’s so much to do with communication it. When I paint myself I am always different people.
“Red Haired Woman, for example, is very heavily textured. I worked on that from drawings and memory in 2008. It was finished, framed, glazed. But then some years ago I changed it, re-painted it, something I’m not sure about and not always happy about. Sometimes I feel I should destroy a painting, throw it away, because I can’t do anything with it. There is something affecting you in an emotional way. I took that one as far as I could.
“Sometimes when a sitter makes a comment it totally throws me! I want them to shut up!” Peter likes Frances Aviva Blane’s remark that if someone likes her painting, it’s bad.
“Your first idea, your first concept or motivation is not necessarily the best one,” he believes. “It’s only by destroying and remaking something that you can mould it or weld it into something solid.”
What he would like to see most in a post-pandemic world would be a change in value systems, from money to quality, equality and a fairer distribution of wealth throughout society.
- Peter Clossick is a member of the London Group and the New English Art Club
- Peter Clossick’s website
- He will be exhibiting with Julie Held at the Anna Lovely Gallery in Sydenham in May 2021