Peter Booth | Painting 2012 – 2015

03.06.15 to 27.06.15


Essay 2015


I have just sat down to write in the garden, and a metaphor, or perhaps an omen, crashes onto the empty page in front of me. It is a flying ant, a virgin queen. At first I think it may have been attacked by a bird, or otherwise traumatised; the connection between its thorax and its abdomen certainly seems very thin, somehow stretched or mangled. As I watch, fascinated, the creature twists and writhes in what seems like arthropod agony, but then it suddenly shrugs off first one of its transparent, veined wings, and then another. A few more stretches and all four have been shed. Naked now and earthbound, it scuttles off the paper, onto the table and away to start a new colony.


There are plenty of bugs in the work of Peter Booth. You can turn yourself inside out trying to pin down the imagery: identifying a particular motif’s first occurrence in the oeuvre; trying to match it to some source in the artist’s biography (birth and infancy in wartime, childhood and adolescence in British industrial Sheffield, young adulthood in Australian industrial Altona, a violent personal assault in the mid 1970s, coping with limbic epilepsy), in his wide reading (Homer, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Castaneda, Blake, Lessing, Carson), in his devotion to movies, especially science fiction and horror (Fellini, Kubrick, Romero, Scott, Hooper), in the work of other artists (Blake again, Bosch, Goya, Ensor, Boyd, Guston); and finally tracing its various periodic reiterations and re-workings over the years.


But such taxonomic investigations can seem somehow beside the point. The artist himself seems to suggest as much in his reluctance to give his paintings individual titles, a professional peccadillo as famous and as aggravating as Arthur Boyd’s refusal to date his works. It is true that Booth’s resolute, decades-long, movement-outlasting adherence to the figurative mode does trigger an iconological reflex, a compulsion to fix each picture’s meaning, to comprehend the lines of its narrative. Yet it can be argued that the essential dynamic of his painting is a kind of semiological subversion, through which the identity of the subject and the necessary corollaries of diachronic narrative and moral judgement are actually wholly suspended. How can we say whether a mutant zombie nightmare monster is behaving well? How can we know if the crepuscular light on the horizon is that of dawn or of dusk or of the End of Days, or where that head in a bag came from, or what the big black spider will do next?


Take Painting 2014, for example. The bald-headed man may be a descendant of works on paper from the early 1980s, drawings of heads on the ocean (1981) and a sphere on the sea (1983). Or he may be one of those early morning swimmers the artist sees in his walks along St Kilda beach. He may even be a literary conceit: the suffering soul – ‘oh no no no it was too cold always’ – of Stevie Smith’s poem Not Waving but Drowning, or the dead artist Joe Lynch from Kenneth Slessor’s Five Bells: ‘…The tide is over you, / The turn of midnight water’s over you / As Time is over you, and mystery, / And memory, the flood that does not flow…’ Perhaps he is simply the familiar figure from dreams, that all-purpose psychological Leatherman, the nightmare of sinking.


Parallel with this ambiguity of origin is a comparable uncertainty of situation. While there is direct, face to face, eye to eye, mano a mano address to the viewer, there is no apparent command, no demand, no appeal, no communicative expression at all, really. Does the man’s open mouth denote terror, or laughter, or simply his taking a breath between swimming strokes?


Well, all and none of the above. Booth ‘holds open the Open of the world,’ [1] preserving that rare and delicate quality of enigma, permitting himself and his audience the greatest latitude of interpretation. His production is neither instrumental-polemical, nor programmatic, nor even simply linear-coherent. Rather, his work is an instinctively and responsively generated parade or recurrent circuit of right-brain, imaginative visions. Hence the simultaneous familiarity and strangeness of this recent imagery: a towering ocean cliff with a small ladder at its foot, the tumbling, eroded geology lashed by wave and storm; leafless trees, their lightning-fork branches highlit by upper crusts of fallen snow, standing silent in a wintry, stony wilderness; an alien-weird mangrove, with its riot of branching, leggy roots and rising pneumatophores, and of fleshy leaves and flowers; solid, stolid, solitary figures, one wearing a cap that could identify him as Phrygian or French-Revolutionary, as a dunce or a Conehead, the other encased in a mountainous-columnar overcoat; and that man in the ocean, neither waving nor drowning.


Welcome back to the Twilight Zone of the Boothian Universe: an ambiguous, transitional, liminal space of shifting sands and meanings, of unpredictable, treacherous currents. What ground, what substance are the figures standing on? Why are those black rocks not buried by the snow? What is that red curtain that opens on the post-apocalyptic road? The metaphors are metamorphic; the metamorphosis is metaphorical. Just put on your pointy hat and point, man. Put on your big furry coat and shake hands with the sky. Slough off those ant wings, babe; let’s dance. Have a cigar.



David Hansen


April 2015


[1] Martin Heidegger (tr. Albert Hofstadter), ‘The origin of the work of art’, in Poetry, language, thought, New York: Harper & Row, 1971, p. 45



Peter Booth is represented by Chris Deutscher, Melbourne