New York

Cliffton Peacock

Germans Van Eck

From a distance Cliffton Peacock’s colors—typically grayed-out purples and blues—seem dull and leaden, but on closer examination they take on the character of bruised flesh. Peacock works up flat overall backgrounds, applying these colors in thick, broad strokes, and then floats emblematic figures in front of them or depicts them emerging from the shadowy depths. In one painting (all works untitled 1990), a ghostly head, its features blurred into a blank mask, is positioned in the center of a flat off-grey background like the image on some primordial Shroud of Turin. In the most elaborately staged image here, a modeled head that recalls a Roman bust of a youth hovers in the sky above a rudimentarily sketched-in background; the word “Lost” is written in the sky along a dark silhouette of mountains.

Even in the livelier images a sense of melancholy prevails. In one, a crudely drawn dancing nude—her arms in particular are awkwardly foreshortened, suggesting flippers in relation to her corpulent body—steps out of the crepuscular background onto Peacock’s lighted stage. The atmosphere of desire and decay implicit in this scene, with the woman more maternal than erotic in her fleshiness, lends a pathos to the image.

Much of the emotional power of these pictures depends on the flat, clayey texture of Peacock’s paint. Applied in rough strokes, Peacock’s backgrounds and foreground images take on the fleshlike, earthy quality of modeling clay. The distinctive murky surface complements his seemingly artless imagery. Peacock’s figures suggest a variety of earlier sources, recalling Reginald Marsh in their expressive reproportioning, recent Italian painters in their references to the antique, Edward Hopper in their stagey lighting, and Donald Baechler in their crude directness.

Working in such a consistently sullen vein, Peacock risks the danger that his images will degenerate into bathos or self-pity. It is easy to imagine this morose but powerful set of pictorial and dramatic terms growing mannered. Here, however, the result was a somber meditation on loss and mortality.

Charles Hagen