Posted on Mar 7, 2017 in General

Realism isn't dead


Peter Clive’s Narrative Figure Paintings will be on display through March at TEJAS Gallery, 341 S. Jefferson St. in downtown Dayton. Admission is free and open to the public. For more information, please visit or

Article written by: Morgan Laurens

                                          Photo: ‘Lamplight’ depicts a solemn world of interiors



By Morgan Laurens

“I have no use for Jeff Koons, for probably obvious reasons,” Peter Clive tells me. The New Hampshire-based painter—whose Narrative Figure Paintings is on display at TEJAS Gallery through the month of March—is telling me about the landscape of contemporary art; it’s inevitable that the patron saint of moneyed art investors and gigantic metallic balloon dogs would come barreling to the surface of our conversation sooner or later. It’s telling that Clive uses the word “obviously when he mentions his dislike for Koons, like it’s inevitable, something to be sighed over and then forgotten quickly for less distasteful subject matter.

Over the years, many critics have agreed with Clive’s assessment of Koons’ work; The Guardian called his work “cheap,” full of “tone-deaf, misogynistic images” that look “dreadful.” The late Time critic Robert Hughes simply wrote, “You can’t imagine America’s singularly depraved culture without him,” a comment that was probably meant as an insult, but is starting to feel more and more like a compliment with every passing day.

Koons’ work is of the plastic variety—smooth shiny surfaces, pop-culture figures plated in gold, and kitschy pornographic photographs. To use a pop-culture shortcut, think Lady Gaga translated onto the glossy New York gallery scene through a deeply cynical Warhol interpretation, and you’ve got a rough approximation of his style.

Looking at Koons’ and Clive’s work side by side, it’s obvious why Clive would loathe someone whose idea of a good joke is to charge someone millions of dollars for three basketballs in a tank. Clive is a painter’s painter, an artist that trades in realism as a craft, as an art form in and of itself.

“I pride myself on having a level of technical skill, and I have always admired people that have a level of technical virtuosity,” Clive says, name-checking the American painter John Singer Sargent as an influence. A worshipper of the old masters down to his last days, Sargent was renowned (and sometimes criticized) for having the uncanny ability to draw with his brush at a time when technical facility and draftsmanship were considered the de facto traits of a quality artist.

“That whole world is dying off,” Clive notes, somewhat sadly. It’s been dying off for quite a while; during Sargent’s lifetime, Impressionism sank its teeth into Europe, casting realism into a corner with the other outdated methods of painting.

Clive acknowledges that his style of painting is seen as obsolete in a technologically advanced world. “The kind of work I do, down the road, I don’t know how much a need society will have for it, because we could be replaced very easily by technology, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to make it,” he says. His carefully crafted paintings describe a solemn world of interiors. Children perch on staircases, listlessly leaning against the walls, women read by 45-watt lightbulbs, and men watch TV in the dark. Everything is bathed in the sort of unnaturally colored light you would find inside a house at night. Several of the works are so saturated with red they look like they were painted in a photography darkroom.

Though his colors are very modern—artificial greens and blues for street lamps and TV screens, respectively—Clive’s spacious interiors are reminiscent of the Dutch still-life paintings that became popular in the 17th century. The Dutch painters’ use of natural light and depiction of everyday life was refreshing after centuries of religiously sanctioned art. Clive’s technical skill with painting light in a modern way seems to wink at both the old masters and the contemporary art-scape in equal measure. See? I can play both sides of history, his paintings seem to say.

Except that contemporary art is, at least in America, almost entirely comprised of Jeff Koons and what he represents. A number of Europeans seem to agree that Koons is America’s greatest living artist, and really, what’s more American than a set of four virginal vacuums encased in glass and illuminated by florescent lights, sold for a fortune?

More than a few artists are baffled by Koons’ popularity. “How do you criticize an artist whose work sells for millions of dollars?” Clive wonders. He’s voicing a thought many of us have had before—that money is tied to legitimacy. It’s worthwhile art simply because it costs money, the market tells us. If you think Koons hasn’t carefully considered the implications of this in his work, then I give you his own words: “The market is the greatest critic.” There’s no surer way to alienate someone than by telling them their taste is bad because the art they like isn’t expensive enough.

“A lot of the art that’s done today is art done for artists or art done for critics or art done for a specified audience,” Clive says. “And I’m not necessarily interested in reaching everybody out there, but I do want to make a connection with people.” Interestingly, Koons is quoted as saying something similar, that his original raison d’être was to communicate with the masses, a goal many would interpret as a colossal failure.

In the end, Koons’ work is an unpleasant paradox, low-brow kitsch art executed for mass appeal, then elevated to high-art status by money. This isn’t art for the general populace; it’s a pastime for rich people who have nothing better to do than talk about art nobody cares about. Clive’s work is the inverse of that. The craftsmanship and color theory in his paintings initially seems geared toward graduate level art students, but ultimately, their restrained depiction of everyday life is democratizing—it’s high art that moves the masses, quietly.