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(Special Feature) Review: Peter Charlap’s Dreams and Memories of Western Modernity

Updated: Apr 29, 2023

By Chunbum Park


"Across," oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches, 2020

(the installation view at the opening reception)

If a culturally Jewish American gentleman who is in his 70s sat down for a tea with me, a South Korean in their 30s, what would he have to say? What memories would he recollect? What values and impressions would he impart onto my consciousness? Peter Charlap’s exhibition titled, “New Work,” on view at the Noho M55 Gallery in Chelsea is an opportune occasion for such a conversation, between the painter and the viewer, upon whom Charlap seeks to leave a lasting remembrance about the West and the Western way of life that he wants to celebrate through painting.

Far left: "On" (1 of 3 panels), oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches, 2020-2023

Second to left: "Aboard," oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches, 2023

Second to right: "Up/Down," oil on canvas, 40 x 0 inches, 2021-2022

Far right: "Like," oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches, 2022

(an installation view with the painting, "In," replacing a previous work after the opening reception)

My first observation of Charlap’s figurative oil paintings is that they follow an internal logic of painting that dictates how everything should be painted, including the composition, color choices, form, details and patterns, and the quality of light. The spaces in Charlap’s works refuse to follow the traditional perspective system since the artist himself admits that he hates everything becoming smaller as they get farther away. The figures occupy a visual space that divides into different narratives and always places the figure centrally as the observer and the actor of the situation. Due to the authenticity of the figures’ expression and demeanor, the viewer can empathize with the figures and see oneself in their shoes. Often the paintings represent a kind of singularity on the canvas, that is the sum of the figures and the worlds or stories that collide and merge together as a cohesive vision. The colors have both depth and flatness as the painting requires. The form deviates from an accurate alignment of lines and shapes – something that I have seen in Paul Cezanne’s Post-Impressionist works. Furthermore, Charlap favors a modern and somewhat cartoon-istic interpretation of the bodies in terms of their poses and positions, over a minutely illustrative anatomy or classical poses. The repeated use of angularly positioned arms and legs remind me of the ancient Egyptian figures but rendered in three dimensions. The details are present and intentionally subdued in different parts of the painting. The patterns are archetypical in the sense that they are based on a nonspecific idea of patterns rather than the actual patterns that exist in the real world. Lastly, the quality of the light differs from painting to painting but is most likely influenced by the Bay Area Figurative movement (1950 – 1970), which included artists such as David Park. Stylistically, Charlap breaks down light and forms into larger overarching shapes and gradations that fit together with an abstracted quality in conveying information.

"On Painting" (3 panels), oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches, 2022-2023

(the installation view at the opening reception)

Drawing is of absolute necessity for Charlap as he never uses photographic references but rather internalizes the subject materials through constant observation and then draws out what he internalized in the form of a new synthetic vision. Painting for Charlap is neither a translation of a pre-existing material nor a formulaic endeavor. Painting requires an innate understanding of the subject and the supporting materials and ability to originate the vision via imagination and fantasy. For him, the imaginative part of the ideation and creation process must be based in the amassing of an internal visual library through an immense degree of observation. Having acquired the visual library in his mind through years of training and artistic practice, Charlap enters the drawing mode without knowing what he will draw or paint. The initial sketch comes out naturally as a discovery and a subconscious exploration of the unknowns rather than anything that is known prior to the act. There must be a feedback loop in Charlap’s painting process between what the painter creates, what he sees, and what he reacts to. As he himself stated in our conversation, Charlap concerns himself with the abstracted qualities and the methods of construction for the figure more than he cares for the illustrational or mimetic qualities. Charlap describes his painting process as a battle or a tennis match between the painter and the painting; what he really means is that the two players are in an intense dialogue like a dialectic. In a dialectic, differing ideas, or positions (thesis and antithesis) evolve upon examination or contact with one another, to find a truth (synthesis). The painting and the painter negotiate the direction and the outcome of painting by investigating the knowns and the unknowns, feeding off each other’s moves.

"Beside," oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches, 2021

(the installation view at the opening reception)

As I observed in the beginning, Charlap’s rejection of traditional perspective allows the internal logic of painting to result in a more intuitive spatial arrangement that radiates or zigzags compositionally to allow singular or multiple narrative elements surrounding the central figures. By the narrative elements, I mean what the figures are doing or where they are placed, and the continual but changing scenes like those found in a movie, such as a moving truck being loaded and later traversing the roads in the night. The scenes are, again, archetypically and universally Western – as in American or European (but more leaning towards European, since Charlap himself admits that he has a strong fascination with old European cars and associates himself more with the European identity) - and they could take place in any such city or town between the 1920s and the 1950s. Through the depiction of the figures and their stories and/or situations, the artist examines human relationships (as with others or oneself) through psychological and visual means. What Charlap finds about the human relationships is perhaps not just that love exists, and doubt and competition exist, but that life is a continual encounter of the self with the others or with a reflection of oneself (on a mirror, for example), resulting in an interaction (exchanging actions) or communication (exchanging information). These exchanges are each merely a brief part of obtaining the long-term life goals, as the figures’ determined gaze towards the future suggests. And the life goals, or the dream of succeeding big economically, socially, culturally, and/or politically, and achieving happiness in the process, is a huge part of the American psyche and the psychology of Charlap’s paintings.

"Between," oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches, 2020

(the installation view at the opening reception)

One cannot help but be reminded by Peter Charlap of the great American painter of the 19th to 20th centuries, Edward Hopper, who utilized realism to depict the American landscapes, cities, and people who resided in them. Mark Strand describes Hopper’s works as having light of an “atemporal” quality due to the artist’s working from his mind rather than direct observation. Where is Charlap situated relative to Hopper, whose “paintings transcend the appearance of actuality and locate the viewer in a virtual space where the influence and availability of feeling predominate,” according to Strand? I contend that Charlap deconstructs and reconstructs his memories of America as fictional visions and/or narratives and places the viewer in them as the protagonists. By doing so, Charlap conveys the essential qualities of his memories and the spirit of the times or the zeitgeist, without being so literal about what he remembers. His memories are merged with the cultural and the social, meaning that he draws inspiration from literature like The Great Gatsby (1925) and cinema such as The Sunset Boulevard (1950) without resorting to a literal illustration of those stories. For Charlap, it’s more important to convey the essence or the spirit of the times without being distracted by the details or the illustrational qualities. The viewer faces an inverted kind of déjà vu as they have seen these people and places (in Charlap’s paintings) before without having seen them in physical actuality or fictional imagination.

"Below," oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches, 2020

(the installation view at the opening reception)

While more could be said and discussed about Charlap’s paintings, I would like to conclude here by asserting that our identity or our spirit is always being shaped by not only what happens to us in physical reality but also what we absorb through our exposure to culture and society. It is the blurring of the boundary between reality and fiction that is most keenly shown in Charlap’s works, as well as the fact that our identity is of composite nature between reality that shapes fiction and fiction that shapes reality. Lastly, what I observe from Charlap’s works is not only the fictional and synthetic nature of his remembrances but the immense power of art to shape and reshape reality. Through art, Charlap is reminding us of the seductive qualities of the Modernity that is distinctly Western, especially as Modernity has its origins in the West. Through Charlap’s paintings, the viewer can try to understand or adopt the Modern Western perspective, experience, and psyche, which may no longer be widely available in the future with the process of globalization and decolonization movements that rightly critique and attack the positions of privilege that the West has occupied until this day.

"Through," oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches, 2022

(the installation view at the opening reception)

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