Introductory Essay – Between Flesh and Brick

Painting by artist Peter Pacheco
Photo of Julia Rothenberg

Shaken this has left me
And laughing and undone

With a blinding bolt of sleeplessness
That’s just begun
And a windy crazy running
Through the nights and through the days
And a crackling
Of the time burned away


– Philip Glass, Lightning


Peter Pacheco is, in a certain sense, an outsider artist. He is no outsider to formal training or art history, but his artistic practice and impressive oeuvre, part of which is exhibited here at the QCC Art Gallery. He has been honed in private, in the evenings and days off from his job as a nurse in an intensive care facility in a public hospital, intentionally outside the gaze of the gallerists, critics, and collectors of the commercial art world in whose company many artists strive to be included. Peter, working in his studio on the top floor of the two-story post-war bungalow he shares with his partner, Avery, has crafted his unique painterly language and vision without regard for art world status.

This privacy has allowed Peter to develop a profoundly rich and complex body of work, but, as the artist acknowledges, his solitary practice has cut him off from the feedback loop central to art’s significance. As he puts it: art is meant to communicate, to speak to an audience. We are very fortunate to be able help complete the task of Peter’s paintings, to interrupt the solitude that has nurtured a vision which is private, yet speaks to universal human experiences of loneliness, terror, alienation and the sublime joy rendered by human perception, sensuality and connection.

Peter’s mother, Bessie, had an enduring influence on his personal and artistic development. An adventurous soul, especially for a woman in the 1950’s, Bessie was fascinated with American culture, jazz music in particular. She owned a small selection of albums (records were an expensive and coveted possession at that time, and Peter’s mother struggled to make ends meet). Peter and Bessie listened to Earl Garner, Ella Fitzgerald and the soundtrack from Carmen Jones over and over again throughout his childhood. Later, Bessie had a relationship with a drummer from Trinidad, who also turned out to be a kind of father-figure to Peter. He turned Peter on to the jazz greats of the Bebop era like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane. The sounds and feeling of that music, with their achingly beautiful riffs, syncopated rhythm and collision of order and frenzy infuse Peter’s paintings to this day.

Painting by artist Peter Pacheco

The appeal of America led Bessie to travel to the United States in 1960, landing in New Haven, Connecticut where she worked as a nanny for a Yale professor’s family. There, she met students and academics from all over the world, and acquired a wood-cut made by the professor’s wife, which was one of the two pieces of original art hanging in Peter and Bessie’s apartment throughout his childhood. Despite the family’s generosity, she also learned from them about the ugly underside of the American social structure, when they instructed her not to publicly socialize with colored people when she waited for the bus. Along with the wood-cut, first-hand knowledge about American racism, and a predilection for 1960’s era detective shows, she left the United States with what was to be more than a memory or memento.

After her stint with the Yale family, Bessie moved to Los Angeles to work as a secretary and there met Peter’s father, an accounting student from a wealthy Mexican family in Guadalajara. Their tempestuous relationship ended amicably shortly after Bessie discovered that she was pregnant. Weighing her options, she decided to return to Denmark where her own mother, a more generous social safety net and greater social tolerance would better nurture her little family. Nonetheless, in the early 1960’s, with dark hair inherited from his father in an extremely homogeneous society, and a number of recurrent health problems which landed him in the hospital for weeks at a time, Peter was a bit of an outsider among his peers.

Painting by artist Peter Pacheco

Peter loved art class in elementary school, where he painted with oil on Masonite boards a couple of hours every week. He remembers getting hooked on the texture and the smell. In high school he met Jens, who remains his best friend until this day. Jens, who later became a professional composer and music educator, learned about jazz through Peter. Through Jens, Peter met Ole Skoul Olsen, Jens’ father and a painter. Over many years, Peter maintained a dialogue with Olsen, whose interest in urban landscape bordering on abstraction Peter shared. Peter’s haunting images of city rooftops viewed from the height of elevated trains although painted in and about New York City, draw on Olsen’s vision of the unique light and fractured angles of the city.

After high school, Peter spent some months in London before returning to Copenhagen to study literature at the university. Peter, always a voracious reader, was especially drawn to the work of the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy, the Danish writer Henrik Nordbrandt, the Italian writer Italo Calvino and Tolstoy. His literary interests sometimes inform his choice of themes and imagery. One of the feet paintings, with the image of a subway in the background, is a reference to the tragic conclusion of Anna Karenina, when she throws herself in front of a train.



Painting by artist Peter Pacheco

Despite his love of literature, Peter soon discovered that academic life was not for him and dropped out of university. Not yet sure what path his life would take, he began to study drawing – which had been a casual pursuit – more seriously, attending life drawing sessions and art classes at a community center. Bessie, concerned about Peter’s financial future, pushed him to consider nursing school. The training was relatively short, it was easy to get a job, and you could make your own hours. And, hospitals were a familiar environment. After all, his mother worked long hours as a secretary on a psych ward and Peter attended kindergarten on the hospital campus. Visiting his mother after work, he became friendly with the staff and patients. He remembers his own experience of hospitalization as a child, where the staff gave him special treatment and provided him with the latest Tin Tin comic books, as not altogether unpleasant. For Peter, hospitals and their proximity to sickness, compromised privacy and institutional regularity were kind of like a second home. Indeed, this early and continued exposure to flesh, in various stages of vulnerability and decay, has informed his painterly representation of the human body. As a patient, Peter was the object of the kindly but clinical gaze of hospital staff. Later, he took on the role of observer and caretaker of the sick body, its colors, smell and texture imprinting on the artist’s imagination.

Painting by artist Peter Pacheco

Opportunities to view modern and contemporary art in Copenhagen were fairly limited. The most important modern art museum was the Louisiana Museum where cutting-edge art was shown. Most of this was influenced by the painterly neo-expressionism of the Danish Cobra movement and later, Per Kirkeby. The museum also had a few paintings by the American color field painter Morris Louis, a few works by the Bay Area artist Richard Diebenkorn, whose light filled, painterly abstractions appealed to Peter, and pieces by the Swiss artist of existential meditation, Alberto Giacometti, whose lonely and isolated figuration left an impact on him.

Peter also frequented the massive Royal Academy Library, checking out as many books about painters as he could find, and discovering a keen interest in the British painter Francis Bacon. From there he found several volumes on Abstract Expressionism, and was immediately taken by its expressive, improvisational qualities, much like the jazz music he already adored. One afternoon, checking out a book on Diebenkorn, Peter met another young artist, Per Traasdahl, who had just come back from studying at the New York Studio School, an independent art school in Manhattan formed by several second-generation Abstract Expressionist artists. Per was the first young artist Peter met also interested in painterly abstraction and the New York tradition. They became fast friends, and shortly thereafter Per talked Peter into taking a leave of absence from his job at the hospital and going to the Studio School to study with the well-known teacher Nick Carrone. Unfortunately, Peter found out upon his arrival that Carrone was no longer there. Nonetheless, through the influence of teachers and other students Peter was exposed first-hand to the New York (via Europe) post-war painting tradition, which included intensive studies of color theory based on the work of Josef Albers, figurative abstraction in the manner of de Kooning, and a focus on the materiality of paint and the subjectivity of the gesture as epitomized by Jackson Pollock. He absorbed this history, the energy of New York life and access to the city’s great museums. In this context, the Abstract Expressionist tendencies in his paintings were given full reign.

Painting by artist Peter Pacheco

Back in Copenhagen, Peter took over Per’s studio, where he felt renewed but a little isolated and kept pushing the abstract style he had pursued at the Studio School. While in New York, Peter learned that Carrone was teaching in his own school in Umbria, and he spent a summer there, drawing from the figure and thinking about ways that abstraction and the figure could be combined. He returned to Italy the following summer to continue his studies and also to absorb the influence of the great classical art that decorated the city of Rome. While in Rome, he made up his mind to move to New York where he could fully immerse himself in the painting traditions which nurtured his practice.

In New York, Peter sublet an apartment in Chelsea and started working as a home health care attendant while he studied for a nursing certification that would allow him to work in the United States. On one of his many bike rides across the Queensborough Bridge, Peter saw the looming gothic buildings of the Goldwater Hospital on Roosevelt Island and decided that was where he wanted to work, an ambition he was eventually to achieve. Meanwhile, he painted in an empty apartment in the Chelsea building where he lived, working primarily on large, painterly abstractions which reflected his most recent training. Looking around is improvised studio, he stumbled upon a stack of gay pornographic magazines from the 1980’s. Fascinated by this outdated trove, he decided to have some of the images blown up and printed on canvas, over which he painted in wax and oil, creating a series of hauntingly beautiful images. These paintings, expressed Peter’s ambivalence about the flamboyant gay community that he found in Chelsea. Unlike in Copenhagen, where one’s sexuality was treated as a rather unremarkable private fact, in Chelsea it became the basis of a colorful subcultural lifestyle. These paintings were an attempt to reconcile his identity as a painter with the sexual politics of his new home.

Painting by artist Peter Pacheco

By 2000 Peter had moved to his present home with Avery, who worked in an architecture firm located on the third floor of tower number 2 at the World Trade Center. Avery and his colleagues made it out before the tower collapsed on 9/11, but the tragedy brought home to Peter his vulnerability as an outsider in the United States without health insurance and shortly afterwards he took his nursing exam and got a job as a nurse on the long-term intensive care unit at Goldwater. He also started thinking about how to reintroduce the figure into his work and began his series of feet paintings, many of which are in this show. It was with these paintings that his work became more thematic, serial and cinematic. He was still profoundly concerned with formal issues, but the narrative elements of the work became more important, personal and biographical.

In 2005, Peter’s grandmother, with whom he had been extremely close, passed away. Peter painted a series of hands, including the painting of hands growing out of a forest, inspired by his grandmother’s hands. Then, in 2008 Bessie was diagnosed with a rapidly progressing form of ALS. While she was sick, Peter painted a single hand, fingers delicately pinched around a flower, which he called Shaken this Has Left Me. Peter explains this painting as a reflection about his mother’s illness but also about the inherent beauty of life. With his mother’s progressive illness and eventual death in 2010, Peter’s paintings, now fully committed to a representational language, began to more directly express themes of anxiety, alienation and loneliness. He produces a series of meditations on the isolation of the observer (literally, the eye or I) of urban life featuring subway cars, high above the city, with a single eye staring out of the window into the dark night. Another series, based on the image of a stag, began as a personal challenge to create an interesting painting using the banal, vernacular image of a stag by a lake so popular on the walls of Danish summer homes. The first of these, Stag and Orange Landscape, is reminiscent of the color saturated landscapes of the Cobra movement, but in subsequent portraits the stag takes on an increasingly terrified expression, as though facing the gun of an invisible hunter about to fire. Red Balloon, also from that period (and not part of a series) shows an older, balding man standing in a field, with outstretched arms, his back to the viewer, watching a red balloon float off into the sky. Inspired by the short film about a boy who befriends a red balloon who leads him through the streets of Paris, this painting suggests the fleeting nature of relationships, bounded by inevitable loss and the sublime contingency of human life.

Painting by artist Peter Pacheco

Julia Rothenberg, Associate Professor of Sociology, Queensborough Community College