Peter Halley at Turner, Byrne & Runyon – Dallas, Texas – Review of Exhibitions – Brief Article
Charles Dee Mitchell
When he was 27 years old, Peter Halley returned to New York City after a seven-year stint in New Orleans. This recent exhibition contained five of the artist’s paintings from those first years back in Manhattan, 1980 and 1981, in which he began to explore the borderline between abstraction and schematic representation.
Least successful of the works is a painting called The Grave (1980). Included in a group show at White Columns the year it was painted, it was the only previously exhibited work on view. In The Grave, a gray rectangular shape sits on the horizon line that separates an olive green “sky” from a darker gray “land.” The Grave is a starting point, but it’s dull. The Red Wall (1980) provides a better sense of the unexpected surrealist source of Halley’s approach to representation. This small painting places a red brick wall against a blue sky. All the elements here are depicted with a de Chirico-like thoughtfulness. Heavy layers of sticky paint give the bricks real weight, and Halley carefully defines the indented lines of mortar along the top of the wall. The brushwork in the sky includes just enough inflection to ensure that the painting maintains its representational status.
Of three paintings from 1981, Apartment House is a too-literal attempt to pun on geometric abstraction and representation, but two large paintings, The Prison of History and Big Jail, demonstrate how the artist’s cautious advance will pay off in the coming years. The former painting’s dark, saturated colors avoid the flatness that purposely deaden a work like Grave. Dark brown blocks separated by reddish mortar define a central structure with a barred window. A transparent black wash fills the implied interior of the prison. The space around the structure has that same black paint with an underpainting of orange that bleeds around the edges of the canvas. For Big Jail, Halley uses the absurdly textured effect that he himself refers to as the “motel-bedroom-ceiling look” to depict the building’s exterior. Behind black bars a pink triangle stands out against a square of raw canvas.
Few artists could boast an “early period” where caution so thoroughly overruled any sense of youthful exuberance in the paintings. Even if there is some unintentional comedy in the deadpan earnestness with which Halley proceeds, this exhibition demonstrated how assiduously he was learning to apply a specific pictorial vocabulary. In the next year or so, Day-Glo paint and an increased confidence with color, along with a willingness to exploit decorative, abstract design motifs, would provide Halley’s work with greater visual impact than these early pieces. What we see already in place in these first paintings is the cerebral wit and intellectual rigor that continues to be the backbone of his work.
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