Peter Barron paints daily in a small shared studio on the third floor of the Commerce Building overlooking Mike’s Tattoo & Piercing on Water Street. He relocated there four years ago from the studio on George Street that he had rented for 32 years. The high-ceilinged room is stacked row on row with vibrant paintings leaning against the walls. When asked if they are finished he tells me, “I’m really not concerned about that,” adding that he continues to work on them from time to time, sometimes for years.
“Drawing and painting have become one,” he says. He still attends weekly life drawing sessions at the Kawartha Artists’ Gallery & Studio, equating it to regular exercise. He is also not afraid to layer oils on top of acrylics.
In January Evans Contemporary presents The Garden of Earthly Delights, a solo exhibit of this significant senior artist whose work has rarely been seen locally in recent years, outside of the odd woodcut for the Artspace 50/50 fundraiser.
In fact Barron’s work has been exhibited throughout North America and his prints have been featured in biennales as far away as South Korea, Russia, Bulgaria, and Finland.
His feverish primary palette calls to mind German Expressionism, with its grotesque political underpinnings and “degenerate art” legacy. Barron’s political portraits border on caricature, resembling those of James Ensor, George Grosz, or Emile Nolde, complete with macabre grins and skeletal hands. His series of self portraits, with their animated, almost hallucinogenic backgrounds, and robust draughtsmanship, remind me of Oskar Kokoschka. Angularity and agitation define his powerful woodcuts and prints, in the spirit of members of Dresden’s pre-war Die Brücke like Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
Barron grew up in a farming community near Welland, Ontario where he would pick cherries and pears in the summer and hunt small game in the fall. After high school he headed to Toronto, and became an elementary school teacher. He enrolled in religious studies at Waterloo Lutheran University, primarily as a way of studying art and architecture. Later he pursued printmaking at OCAD night school, and at Guelph University.
He arrived in Peterborough in the mid 1970s. He didn’t know anyone, but quickly became part of what notable local artist Eric Loder termed the Peterborough School of Painters. He found a community of committed artists, including American-born artists like David Bierk and Dorothy Caldwell, and a lot of potters as well. “That was a vital time, kind of a revival,” Barron tells me. “There was an energy, an urgency,” with the advent of artist-run centres like Artspace and numerous pop up group shows. “Just about anyone would be included.” The Art Gallery of Peterborough used to have a more direct connection to the local art scene. “It was quite a circus,” he says.
Earning a living first as an elementary and later a secondary school teacher, Barron has now retired from his position as head of the art department at Adam Scott Collegiate and devotes himself full time to his art. He says that early in his teaching career, art classes were well equipped and supported so that even difficult kids could succeed, but laments the slow erosion and marginalization of art education in the public school system today.
Barron is a modest, soft-spoken man, whose thoughtful presence is a contrast to the bold and passionate paintings, drawings, and prints he has been making for over four decades.
Even while Barron’s landscapes can capture the joyful abandon of a summer’s day, a note of the monstrous lies just beneath the surface. The key to the distorted undefined figures in his paintings may be the traumatic experience of encountering the body of a suicide victim while out duck hunting in his youth. That and 9/11 have fueled his obsession with “falling people, drowned people.”
His paintings swarm the canvas with raw colour, exploding into equal parts of exuberance and chaos. Paolo Fortin, director of Evans Contemporary writes, “Both edgy and sinister, Barron’s incongruous, abstracted figures populate a landscape of vivid colour, tangled brushstrokes, and colliding paint.”
Says Barron, “That’s the way the world is, the world isn’t full of focal points.”
Peter Barron’s The Garden of Earthly Delights runs until January 27 at Evans Contemporary (more info).
Cover image courtesy Peter Barron. Photos by Ann Jaeger.