Art with a Conscience
It has been said of the artist Abe Peters that his art is
of the people,
for the people. It is art with a conscience. The truth of this was readily
evident in the artwork in his recent exhibit Art With a Conscience, at
Winchevsky Centre in Toronto (October 20th to November 10th).
All too often working people say, "I don't know anything about art."
walking into this exhibit they would immediately feel at home and have
opinions! Their heartstrings would twang with recognition. The paintings
are of people at work, at home or marching with banners. Some are
statements critical of the likes of former Ontario Premier Mike Harris,
of U.S. President George Bush. Many have a chuckle in them, some have
social criticism, some take you into lives of people at a moment in time.
Even the few landscapes in some way cause the viewer to consider the lives
of people in a rugged land.
Abe Peters' work is experimental in approach. He uses bas-relief
montages employing cloth, polivinal and in larger works (not in the show),
aluminum netting to create form; colour and further details are established
with acrylic paint.
I found myself imagining some of these works on the walls
of union offices
and halls or in public buildings. Many of these works challenge you to
not always popular opinions, or bolster ideas you already hold. Others
clearly celebrate the life of a worker, or a musician, or figures such
J.B. Salsberg, the late well-known Labour Progressive Party MPP in the
Ontario Legislature from 1943 to 1955.
Island off Newfoundland is a very textural painting. One
reacts to the
massive treeless cliffs and the tiny homes of fishermen. In the painting
Farmer Contemplating (bas-relief, acrylic), the man walking in a winter
field, head lightly down, creates a sense of bareness. Distant telephone
poles and a nearby stump striving to exist are perhaps symbols of the
farmer's story: always at the mercy of the elements, and today being beaten
down by agrofarms and the like.
Family at Pond, an acrylic collage, offers a happy scene
in the tall
grasses: the simple joys of a family. There is a painting of a PEI
lighthouse-one can appreciate it as a scene or consider the life of the
keeper. The paintings Nathan Phillips Square and Queen's Park Landscape,
both acrylic on board, show moments in recent demonstrations against the
damage done to the Ontario school system by former Premier Harris.
A powerful painting, in Peters' bas-relief method, depicts
a worker looking
for a job; in the background in large print: "to find the right job
time." A painting called Cardinal Red is critical of the Catholic
but I fail to grasp its meaning. Mike and Mickey, acrylic collage, pokes
fun at Harris's act as a friendly guy like Mickey Mouse (in the lower
of the painting). But like Mickey Mouse he is unreal. I chuckled over
painting Fowl; a colourful chicken with the head of Harris has laid a
egg. The chicken's face seems to say, "What have I done?" Ambushed
has a sad and pouting Mr. Bush, all but wrapped in the Stars and Stripes.
look suggests that he's thwarted and not at all happy. A companion painting
Of Thee I Sing depicts the American people being wrapped in the flag,
smothered by it.
A painting called Irish Politics shows Bernadette Devlin
progressive nationalist MP from Northern Ireland in the British House
Commons) in the upper portion, and Irish Protestant fundamentalist Ian
Paisley in the lower area. A newspaper clipping, in collage form with
quotes from Devlin, supports her dream of a non-sectarian socialist, united
Ireland. The artist desires to see unity between the workers of Ireland,
north and south.
Among a number of strong effective paintings is Cape Breton,
which portrays the rugged head and shoulders of a miner. There is a sense
of a mine in the thick dark sculptural shapes. Background newspaper lettering
says "Cape Breton loses last coal mine." Kensington MP, done
in the artist's bas-relief method, shows J.B. Salsberg speaking, his hands
foreground, bigger than life size.
There are three paintings that touch on music from different
realms. One is
of Glen Gould, the familiar rugged head, hands raised above black and
white keys on orange and gold ground. It is easy to like this vigorous
painting celebrating a unique Canadian musician. In Harmonica Player,
portions of a real shirt and jeans are employed in a sculptural way to
depict a man playing the harmonica. He appears to be a street person.
To me there is a warmth conveyed through music shared. It is not a sad
scene. Then there is Conductor: one feels the intensity of conducting
and almost hears the music in the sweeping colours and shapes beyond the
head and hands.
In Granddaughter, acrylic on board, the brush work is intentionally
but a clear sense of a delicate young person comes across.
Abe Peters graduated from the Montreal School of Art and Design. Later
he enrolled in the University of Waterloo, pursuing further art knowledge.
In conversation with the artist I learned that he stayed true to his artistic
side while a trade union organizer. That work took him to Mexico in 1951,
where he was successful in organizing workers into the Amalgamated
Lithographers of America. His organizing work continued in Ontario and
British Columbia and no doubt influenced the theme of his art. As for
experimental method in art he says "It has helped me as an organizer
work out what was needed when-for instance, organizing 2,000 nursing staff
and doing arbitration."