Even when posed against pale cerulean skies and raked by watery yellow light, the individuals in Cliffton Peacock’s 14 new paintings don’t appear to be having a day at the beach. Despite the mostly sunny settings, they have shadowy visages, rendered in mottled, moldy earth tones. Larger than life in most cases, and untitled except for two, these oil-on-linen portraits (all 2009) are crudely drawn, often outlined with thick black lines. The looming faces leave little room for the flat, blue or acid pastel backgrounds, and nearly blot out the occasional landscape. The same work may exhibit thick, gritty, stuccolike surfaces in central areas but only patchy coverage toward the edges.
Some of the faces appear masklike; others are so coarsely modeled and splotchy that they resemble a preschooler’s paint-by-numbers efforts. A few look physically damaged, as in the ambiguously gendered subject who displays an armless shoulder in Prosthesis (39 by 38 inches), or emotionally deranged, with sneering, feral expressions.
Two of the largest works, atypically for this show, feature full-length figures engaged in ambiguous narratives in spare, flat landscapes. One (75 by 59 inches) offers a low orange sun that collides with the head of an animal, perhaps a pig or dog, being wrestled to the ground by a crouching person. In the other (511⁄4 by 461⁄4 inches), a daylight sky with a crescent moon is the backdrop for a forward-bending figure (astronaut? hazmat worker? beekeeper?) wearing vaguely defined full-body gear.
A few of the heads have blanked-out faces—like one (161⁄2 by 14 inches) suggesting a swimmer in striped racing cap—and call to mind Charles Webster Hawthorne’s “mud heads.” These are impressionist studies of subjects that Hawthorne, a turn-of-last-century Provincetown painter, backlit so brightly that their features were obliterated by murky shadows. Peacock’s minor-keyed palette and dissipating faces may also remind some of Luc Tuymans’s wan, mediated images. More to the point is that Peacock, born in Chicago in 1953, studied with Philip Guston at Boston University in the 1970s. The faces he portrays are more likely conjured from shadows swirling through his own imagination than arrived at from studying light effects or appropriated images. Feverishly perceptual as opposed to conceptually cool, overtly disagreeable rather than laconically withholding, Peacock’s ominous, unsettling pictures are meant to be in the viewer’s face—and possibly of them too.
Photo: Cliffton Peacock: Untitled, 2009, oil on linen, 75 by 59 inches; at Alpha.