June Mostra 2017 / Meet the artists… Peter McDonald

The final Mostra of works by our 2016–17 artists-in-residence will open at the BSR this evening. For a taste of what to expect from the exhibition, we bring you our latest interview, this time with Abbey Fellow in Painting, Peter McDonald. Here Peter discusses the works he will be showing in the June Mostra, the process behind them, and how being in Italy has shaped his practice during the past three months.

Peter McDonald

Peter McDonald. Photo by Antonio Palmieri.

Peter McDonald’s paintings depict a colourful world inhabited by people engaged in everyday activities. Images of teachers, hairdressers, chefs, shopkeepers or scholars are constructed with an elementary graphic language. They have a cartoon like simplicity and waver at the point where figuration might tip at any moment into abstraction. Human forms veer towards the geometric; circles stand in for heads, flat planes describe rooms and crude poses denote narrative. Yet these simplifications appear to create a community of superhumans living in a world that has a harmonious transparency.

What will you be showing in the mostra and can you explain the process behind the works and how they came about?

I’ll be showing about 25 works on paper, A4 size, painted with this acrylic gouache paint, which is water-based, which I buy in Japan – but then I found some interesting colours in an art shop in Rome too – and then six of these cigarette box works.

You have to lift up the lid then flick the front part down. I’ve been making these boxes for years – I showed them in an exhibition in Japan [at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa] and even then I’d been making these for a while. They ended up going to bookshops, bakers, hairdressers, record shops, places like that. So it’s something that I do when I travel. Altogether I’ve probably made between 45 and 50 of them.

Do you ever match up what you paint inside of the box with the images on the outside?

Yes, sometimes – for example, one cigarette box had a photo of smoke being blown onto a baby’s face on the outside, and inside I painted a couple kissing, in a very romantic and idealised scene in contrast to the outer image.

PeterMcDonald

Painted cigarette box by Peter McDonald. Photo by Ellie Johnson.

With this one, I collected some bits of broken glass from the street outside, and turned it into a contemporary art piece in the scene inside this box, and then a shaving from a pencil-sharpener became a sculpture.

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Gallery scene inside a cigarette box. Photo by Ellie Johnson.

There will be six of these boxes in the mostra, and they’re going to be on little shelves placed throughout the exhibition.

The images come about from my daily life, so I walk around with this pocket-sized sketchbook, and inside I quickly sketch ideas, and that’s the starting point for my paintings. Some of them don’t make it out of the sketchbook. They’re just little moments that I see in my daily life and that I think might translate well into my painted world. I often find that the process of painting reveals more information about the subject, and gives it more sense or makes it more interesting, and I just follow it through.

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Scenes of daily life in Rome by Peter McDonald in the BSR exhibition space. photo by Ellie Johnson.

With your paintings looking at ‘people engaged in everyday activities’ – how has the context of the BSR, and Rome more generally, fed into this?

Being in Rome and at the BSR has fed into my work, but quite subtly. It isn’t reflected so much on the surface in terms of the imagery, but it has had an effect more internally, and that will probably start seeping through later. Being in Rome has allowed me to visit sites and cities which have given me a sense of the historical and artistic lineage: going from Pompeii to Palazzo Massimo and seeing the frescoes, then on to Venice, Florence and Siena, and after that Arezzo and Assisi and Perugia. I really felt the lineage of history and how imagery and techniques were developing, especially in the depiction of space, which I have always been interested in, and which was one of the reasons why I wanted to come to Rome in the first place. So it’s been more than I expected, really. Also, using the Library at the BSR for books which talk about the development of space in paintings, from Roman times to the Renaissance, has been a really good thing to be doing in the evenings – I can read up about it, and then process it when I’m working the next day.

As your residency is relatively short at just three months long, how have you divided your time between being inside the studio and being outside of the BSR, engaging with the city and with Italy?

It’s been a challenge but in a good way. From the beginning I knew that I should try and think about how to divide the time, and at first I was actually thinking, if I can’t make any work then I will give priority to being in Rome seeing places and visiting places, and then if I can make some work, I will at least make some sketches or some notes. As it happens, I have managed to do enough: I’m happy with the work that I’ve made, and also I’ve managed to visit so many places. There are still two or three places I’d like to visit before I go – Cortona, Tarquinia and Ostia, if I can.

Since being in Rome, have you come across any new styles or mediums or techniques that you’d like to pursue after your residency?

In terms of materials, just these acrylic paints which I found in Rome. The fresco workshop was something I’ve always wanted to know more about, but I don’t know If that’s something I would go back to in my practice. However, it will help me understand frescoes a bit more when I see them now, and understand how difficult the process is.

Have you found that working alongside artists who have very diverse practices to your own impacts upon your work?

This studio is great, because it’s your own space and it’s very quiet, which allows me to just get into my own work. But it has been good to be alongside artists every day, and to see what they’re doing and the variety of different practices has been really interesting. Especially in comparison to London, where the other artists you interact with tend to be doing similar things in terms of art, so it has been really refreshing to see different practices.

Has the interdisciplinary nature of the BSR, working alongside scholars as well as other artists, influenced your work? 

With the scholars, it’s been good to hear their lectures and hear how they think about things, because that’s definitely something that I don’t have much access to in London – people doing PhDs, researching classics or history… there’s no way that I would normally meet people like that when I’m based in my studio in London. I’ve found that to be really interesting, and perhaps it will come out in my painting somehow.


Peter’s work will be exhibited alongside the six other resident artists in the June Mostra; open 16.30-19.00, Friday 16 June until Saturday 24 June 2017, closed Sundays.

Interview conducted by Ellie Johnson (Communications & Events)

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