Early in our conversation, Peter Joseph tells us, ‘To me painting is everything, and there’s nothing that we have in society that’s the equivalent. Real painting leaves you absolutely immobile, because you’ve met something; you’ve met yourself.’
Since the sixties, and after leaving behind a career in advertising, Peter has spent his life painting and contemplating painting. Represented by Lisson Gallery, he is their longest standing artist, and has exhibited internationally with numerous other galleries. He lives in the countryside outside Stroud, Gloucestershire, with his wife Denise, an animal rights activist. The studio, which he designed, is a minimal, dark oblong, which, despite objections from conservative neighbours when it was built almost 30 years ago, sits discreetly among a handful of other cottages.
‘I love it out here, because nature is the nearest I know to the experience you have with art. The kind of heady experience you can get sometimes. And the quiet amongst just nature, I find that is immensely important to me. Painting now is such a business of city life, frankly, money making. Who you know and who you don’t know. I find it nonsense because I only need myself to go every day as I do, painting.’
The layout of the studio reveals two clear priorities – daylight and the view over the valley. A wall of large windows overlooks the woodland (beech, oak and sycamore) on the opposite slope. Long tables run in front of the windows and two of Peter’s most recent works hang on the two back walls. The rest of the studio is devoted to storing books and finished work. I enquire about one that’s partly visible. ‘That’s going to be killed off!’ he tells me.
A table is piled with small scraps of canvas, all marked with brush strokes in Peter’s intuitively but rigorously modulated colour palette. This is the personal vocabulary of his work, and the starting point for his paintings. ‘You start to see one colour, and another, and that’s only the beginning of course; trying to put them together so they make a meaning.’ I recall something he said earlier about designing adverts and, ‘moving around these pieces of type mass, dark and light… I was interested in the movement of masses and the balance of them within a certain area.’ He would later see this as his introduction to abstraction.
The scraps of canvas become small collages, or studies, which he scales up into the final work, but are beautiful in their own right. Tens of them sit in neat stacks in the corner where he paints. He will leave these for days, or sometimes weeks, before deciding if they hold the potential to become a painting. Of the paintings themselves, he says, ‘This is more real, this is the real thing. Painting to a human scale.’
The paint is applied to respond to light, or even behave like it. He explains, ‘The paint is put on thin so that the light actually changes. When the light goes over it, the painting begins to fill up: it’s like a pool. It requires two transparent layers; only one other thin layer is enough to make a slight difference, a slight gloss, which you see as a mark.’
Peter spontaneously decides to pull out an older work he has not looked at for years, and we all awkwardly help him peel back the tape and bubble wrap. It is an entirely different experience to the newer work. The latter’s discreet forms of colour inhabit the space of a canvas coloured ground, poised in relationship to one another. In the older work a small rectangle rests in the centre of a darker border; the two tones, although one light and one dark, somehow create one continuous field. Peter painted in this way for 34 years before what he calls the organisation of the paintings changed.
But light, colour and tone are not only aesthetic concerns for Peter. Sifting through his CDs, which he always plays while he paints, he mentions Schubert and Schumann, in particular. ‘They relate to me. The tonality is all important because it’s like a voice of suffering and hoping – everything about a wonderful complex human being.’
A question I had left unasked from our meeting was how Peter might want someone to approach his work. I found a possible metaphor to answer it in an anecdote he told about encountering a Grecian temple in Sicily many years ago, before the area became heavily commercialised by the tourist trade. ‘I went over the hill, and there were the three of us, on our own, nothing around, and there it was. The nobility of it, standing in this massive landscape, in this quiet way, so beautiful.’