Day by Day Good Day
Peter Dreher at The Mayor Gallery, Cork Street, London
7 April – 2 June 2017
“What is abstraction? What is its purpose? Why does it not incorporate recognizable imagery? For two reasons. One is so it is neutral in its way. So it can be read equally… The second and even, especially now, more important is that it is a structure, a language that can be read out of context.” (Sean Scully, 2012)
En route to attending a reading of extracts from ‘Inner: The Collected Writings and Selected Interviews of Sean Scully’ at Waterstones in Piccadilly, I had time to visit the Peter Dreher exhibition that was opening later that evening at The Mayor Gallery in Cork Street. I previously only knew of Dreher’s work from acquiring a copy of, ‘Peter Dreher – Just Painting’, (published by MK Gallery with Occasional Papers, 2014). Even in reproduction, Dreher’s studies of an empty but heavy, leaden-looking drinking glass placed on a flat surface have an engaging attraction for their apparent simplicity and matter-of-factness. In this instance, the reproductions are small and the paper glossy – which suits the reflective qualities of the glass receptacle depicted. But of course the ‘real thing’ is always different – for paint cannot (yet) be reproduced as facsimile. In the flesh, the carefully applied oil paint is not only textured by the brush and skilfully nuanced; it is also perceptively manipulated by the human hand and coordinated by the eye and the mind.
At The Mayor Gallery, a small selection of Dreher’s 5000+ studies of the same drinking glass, typically painted in two sessions per day (since 1974), is presented on three walls. The sequence of 58 linen canvases are only interrupted by one barely noticeable corner break in the interior architecture, and the installation creates an integrated hang in a gallery space that is neither too large nor too small. The square format seating in the centre of the floor allows for contemplation of one wall at a time; but a slow, stop-start, walk along each horizontal expanse is ideal before the guests arrive for the Private View.
Initially, the observer might play at ‘spot-the difference’, but each painting is clearly unique. The sequencing is one of pairs; from the am/pm sessions that Dreher structures his typical painting day, providing a binary structure or mirroring of sorts; but in this arrangement you can look to left or right to make comparisons. At a stretch, you can compare any of the paintings, but each one pulls the viewer in to its own self-contained arena. A notion of non-identical twins, or an extended family portrait comes to mind, where the same faces will differ, despite a shared DNA. Or perhaps each image, an almost head sized 10X8 inches (25X20cm), is a self-portrait? But the inverted reflections in the glass do not reveal the artist’s face, although the evidence of his attentive gaze is clearly and astutely visible.
Each canvas could be considered a document of a visual manifestation of time, witnessing the lights and darks of both opaque and reflected surfaces in and around the glass, tabletop and backdrop wall. The surrounding but anonymous studio room, plus the external window view of a building, clouds and sky, adds a context or theme of the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’ volumes of space that sends the eye in macro or microscopic directions.
This is not photo-realist imagery (a painting made from a photographic print would look utterly different), but the pictures that appear to represent so many mundane moments have a snapshot quality. Thousands of observations within one sitting of several hours is not so much condensed, but expanded into the momentous grasp of a Cartesian endeavour to make an observed judgement reveal the complexity of the visual world. That Dreher admires Giorgio Morandi and Robert Ryman – and the serialist music of Philip Glass – is unsurprising. By comparison, Scully’s paintings might be too loud and vigorously constructed in comparison – though their works are similarly produced with reference to an inherently architectonic structure and the visual necessity of each unique image to travel beyond the literal.
In considering Morandi, Scully has written: “To see and to work. To paint in a way that was always virtually the same. Thus simultaneously to liberate the painting style which represented the subject without prejudice, as I would call it, and to read that subject as space, light, color and form.” (Sean Scully, 2005)
The same could be said of Dreher’s, ‘Every Day Is A Good Day’ paintings.
Though I have co-incidentally brought Scully into a consideration of Dreher’s realist paintings, their respective achievements as painters may represent two sides of the same coin: where true value lies in a total commitment to painting – as substance and image. Both artists make paintings work making – and worth seeing. Therefore any argument about categorisation is superficial – or limiting.
Delving back into the ‘Just Painting’ publication, from his 80th birthday interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2012, Dreher referenced abstraction in painting: “If someone finds the painting of the glass abstract, I don’t mind, for the painter simply sets down islands of colour next to each other, intent on reconciling the islands or letting them contrast with each other. He doesn’t think about producing the illusion of a glass, and is astonished when at the end, the illusion of a glass is there on the painting. Thus, an abstract painting has come into being, in which one can also see as glass… Paintings are – and always have been – abstractions, colour surfaces on surfaces.”
Aficionados of abstract painting should not miss this show.