Haynes Galleries through April 14
WORDS Margaret F. M. Walker
With strong classical training and a fondness for the art of the untrained, Harvey Peterson creates thoughtful and whimsical sculptures. These, along with oil-based monoprints, are the highlight of the March display at Haynes Galleries in Franklin. Haynes has shown this work in Maine, where the artist is based, but this is its inaugural showing in Nashville.
Peterson earned a B.F.A. and an M.F.A. from the Maryland Institute College of Art and had a long career teaching painting in private schools in Baltimore. As he was approaching retirement, he worked to build a cottage and studio on family property in Maine. During that process, he discovered a love for working with wood, and having always been intrigued by folk art, he decided to try making his own. In some ways, his shift into this type of work parallels art historians’ recognition of outsider art as worthy of formal study. Gary Haynes says, “He has become a master of a certain artistic intersection between that which is considered folk art and that which is considered fine art, creating something that is simultaneously contemporary and out of the past.”
Most of the sculptures are an unusual size—at around 43 inches they are double the height of a standard doll, but still far from life-size. Peterson explained that the size is largely a result of the capacities of his tools and workshop. With the maximum working size established, details could be more intricate, particularly on the base, which Peterson uses to expand upon the story of the figure it supports.
A curious continuum in his oeuvre is play with the shapes that make the figure, particularly the chest cavity. Red Level Lady tips to the side as if rubbing an aching hip. Her chest contains two levels with their bubbles decidedly off-center, exaggerating this figural detail. In contrast, a third level sits within a cavity near where her navel would be, scientifically communicating the balancing act expected in dynamic sculpture.
Home Plate Catcher has doors on his chest, disguised as protective pads. They hinge open to reveal an old baseball that appears to be well used and signed by the whole team. Penobscot Man plays even more with the idea of drawers and hinges and what might be within the geometrical shapes evocative of legs and arms. They open to reveal maps and navigational tools. At the figure’s center, in the chest cavity, is a compass, and more are hidden in additional nooks.
Peterson reveals that his interest in the chest cavity started with the idea that it was simply a box and could be made more interesting with found objects, whether cans of Moxie Soda or clocks. Playing with doors and drawers expands the story of each figure, and investigating these interior spaces acts as a visual metaphor for how one gets to know a person better.
Motion is another important element in many of Peterson’s sculptures. Christian Louboutin Lady is mid-stride, as one imagines that wind makes the hem of her dress flutter and draws her hand to her hat. She, like many, even twirls on her rod like a weathervane. One can imagine having this piece in a home and rotating it periodically just to see the new way that lines and patterns play in a space and with our understanding of it. Notice how she doesn’t have legs, but rather just the suggestion of them. Peterson enjoys the challenge and intricacy of carving shoes, and those characteristic Louboutin red soles draw one’s eyes to them.
Appropriate for the season, Tape Measure Curler, Peterson says, came from watching the Norwegian team in a recent winter Olympics. The figure is caught in his most dynamic lunge, and the tape measures all around him and the base serve to emphasize the importance of precision in this sport.
In these and other pieces, motion is countered by sharp angles, often further emphasized by hinging doors and pulling drawers. Peterson’s goal is to evoke the folk art that so inspires him, which is often stiff and awkward. It is a quality he is aiming to preserve.
The figures’ delicately carved and intricately painted faces, hands, and hair-dos are where one can see Peterson’s skill and background in painting. They are the organic element in contrast to the boxy and sometimes illusionistic core of the bodies. Peterson says that “each has ten to twelve coats of paint, giving a rich color. I then use a combination of varnishes and a stain that seeps into the cracking, giving the suggestion of age. Finally, there is a matte varnish to seal it all.”
Interspersed with the sculptures in the Haynes exhibition are more-traditional landscapes—vibrant and impressionistic scenes of the land around Belfast, Maine. They are monoprints and roughly the same size because of the rapidity with which Peterson must work to create the image and the print. Most often employing rice paper, Peterson enjoys how the prints have an immediate and translucent quality akin to the watercolors he painted for many years. He reflects on a difference, though—“the magic of seeing the result when you pull the print.”
Gary Haynes praises Peterson’s sculptures: “They are great portraits and tell stories; there is a lot of intellect in the work. He really knows how to capture the character of his subject by working around a concept.” Haynes’s favorite parts are the faces, where, he says, “They become figures with real lives.”