Cliffton Peacock

Alpha Gallery

While the influence of Philip Guston is evident in Cliffton Peacock’s lushly painted portraits of phantasmal beings, the Charleston, South Carolina–based artist’s former teacher is not his only role model. Peacock also aligns his work with, as he puts it, “the modestly scaled images of a single head made by Old Masters and hidden in the corners of museums.” Like such portraits, the fourteen new pieces at Alpha Gallery are at times psychologically compelling, at times inscrutably ambiguous.

Featuring foreboding, distorted faces positioned against lavishly brushed, nearly monochromatic backgrounds, Peacock’s new canvases (all works 2009) are sparer and less allegorically rich than those by Guston or, to cite more contemporary works, those of Dana Schutz (whose paintings also recall Guston). But at the same time, Peacock trades in Schutz’s demented pictorial vocabulary: A soldier is clothed in a flag; a figure wears what looks like a hazmat suit; a man has a curiously designed prosthesis nailed to his shoulder. Each of Peacock’s fictive characters also projects an unusually strong, albeit anxious psychology—surprising for an artist who uses neither models nor photographic sources. In one particularly disconcerting yet masterfully painted work, a man with a receding hairline bares his teeth in a frightful grimace; his exaggeratedly wide eyes are frozen in a ghoulish gaze, as if he is suffering from psychosis. His face, neck, and shoulder are constructed from highly textured brown and red brushstrokes and judiciously arranged blue and yellow painterly accents. (The offbeat lime green background recalls the bravura palette of Fauvism or German Expressionism.) Another small canvas bears a figure with protruding ears whose features have been entirely obscured by some thirty coats of paint. The face—a dark gray mass partly covered by a blue-and-red cap—rises up from the base of the canvas before a lemon yellow ground. Without marks to distinguish the shadowy figure’s eyes, nose, and mouth, Peacock completely obliterates identity in favor of evincing a dark mood of alienation. Still, he manages to conjure a strong human presence.

The largest canvas in the exhibition is also the sole work portraying more than one figure. In a nonspecific rural setting, a man kneels behind an indistinct four-legged beast—a sheep, pig, or dog—which gushes dark, brownish blood from its nether regions. The auburn ejecta splatters on green grass, and its hue counterbalances the turquoise sky and hot orange sun. Whether spewing ominous afterbirth or suffering a mortal wound or some other terrible affliction, the poor creature receives physical support from the crouching man, adding poignancy to Peacock’s nightmarish “pastoral” scene. As in all of his work, the artist intends the identity of the characters and the narratives that develop from them to be open-ended—as mysterious as an anonymous portrait sequestered in a hidden corridor of a museum.

Francine Koslow Miller