by Ian Massey
Though he exhibits infrequently, Peter Seal has over the years built a reputation for his quietly powerful abstract paintings, notable for their chromatic subtlety and beautifully-crafted surfaces. Typically, a canvas might be composed of one or two squares or rectangles, within which are then set one or more subsidiary geometric shapes. Such grid-like structures might suggest sources in the urban environment, but the artist is keen to assert that this is not his intention, and that although there may be subliminal references to the world of appearances, there are no explicit external reference points. The paintings, he says, “don’t have an answer – they are not crossword puzzles.” Their eloquence comes from paint and form alone.
Seal works on a number of paintings at once, different sizes ensuring variety of pace and focus. Each can take six-to-eight weeks to complete, though much of that time might not be in the physical making, but in a process of assimilation, a kind of “settling time”. They are built up slowly in layers of oil paint, each allowed to dry before the next is applied. A grey, painted over vermillion, becomes warmer; a white softer when painted over yellow. This gradual accretion results often in a lapidary intensity of colour. Edges where colours abutt or intersect are crucial. Some are knife-sharp, whereas others are more diffuse, allowing the subtle vibration of a seam of cobalt, violet or alizarin, or of a fizzy penumbra where magenta and orange merge. Spatial harmony is achieved through tonal modulation and a fine-tuning of the scale of each component and its inter-relationships.
In planning a painting, structure is secondary to Seal’s primary interest in colour. He might start quite simply, by painting a single hue, or from the idea of two that he feels could work together. His palette derives often from what he sees in nature, from a visual experience that compels him to seek some equivalent in paint. Though resident in Manchester since the early Eighties, Seal was born and grew up in Perthshire, and it was there that the formation of his artistic sensibility began. He particularly likes what he describes as Scottish colours, citing the intermingling of hue in woven tweed fabric, and that of hills covered in heather, where two or more colours coexist, merging from a distance to read as one. There are similar effects in certain paintings, where two distinct colours can be seen to cohabit within the weave and nub of the canvas. As a young man Seal would go fishing with his brother-in-law on the River Ness, and he recalls how struck he was by the light and colour of the water, both in its shallows and its depths. Its darkness he compares to “the impenetratable deep darkness of the jungle” in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novel in which light and its absence both drive the narrative and serve as metaphors for the human condition. Conrad’s opening scene is set in the mouth of the Thames estuary, ‘a luminous space’ in which ‘sea and sky were welded together without a joint’; a description somehow apposite when considering Seal’s work. Notwithstanding his avowal of its status as “physical objects rather than boxes of illusory space”, in talking about his work he refers quite often to inspirations in literature, poetry and music, and frequently names his paintings from song titles or those of poems. Essential to the quality of the work is its presence, one that goes beyond materiality, for in certain canvases one intuits a metaphysical connotation. The artist alludes to this when discussing a tripartite painting in which a large square of brick-red predominates, “overlapping; obliterating; covering: to me there would be a sense that that red was covering something.”
The artist’s journey to abstraction was a gradual one, and in recounting it he refers to a number of key points en route. Amongst them was a show of the American abstract painter Ellsworth Kelly at The Hayward Gallery in London in 1981. The sources of Kelly’s rigourously-minimal canvases are in the real world – he might for instance alight on the curve of a bridge, or the skewed rectangle of a barn roof – then pare it down to its formal essence, as a shaped canvas painted in a single uninflected colour. Whilst not at that time imagining himself working in an abstract idiom, there was a strength and clarity in Kelly that Seal responded to. He mentions also the interplay between internal and external spaces in Matisse’s The Piano Lesson (1916), and how he began to divide his own canvases into two discrete areas, with figurative elements in each; his son Jack in one section, a pool of water in the other for example. Later, in 1992 he showed with fellow-Scot Craigie Aitchison (1926-2009) at the Castlefield Gallery in Manchester. Though figurative, Aitchison’s paintings are notable for their simplicity and superb colour. He remembers a conversation in which Aitchison told him how other painters would sometimes ask, ‘Why have you got so little in your painting?’, and how he would respond by asking them in turn, ‘Why have you got so much in your painting?’, an anecdote that reassured Seal’s sense of purpose. He mentions also a show of David Sweet’s abstracts at the Cornerhouse as another factor in his eventual liberation from representation.
For the past two years or so Seal has been making small collages from pieces of paper painted with organic shapes in black ink, which he then cuts up and rearranges in new configurations. This more spontaneous parallel activity he compares to the sculptor Anthony Caro’s welded assemblages of scrap metal shapes, and there is something sculptural about these works on paper, in their crisply-cut half moons and sinuous brush strokes. The formations in these collages have infiltrated several recent paintings, in which the artist has experimented with clusters or pairs of curvilinear shapes set in geometric structures. These show the potential for a new direction and an extension of his formal language.
Now in his fifties, Seal continues to engage fully in the process of painting, working in an established tradition of abstraction that combines classical structure and a use of colour that is essentially romantic. His work has substance and integrity; its quality is indisputable.
© Ian Massey 2014
Written to accompany the exhibtion Peter Seal: Paintings and Collages, Bankley Gallery, Manchester, July 2014.
Quotes by the artist are from a conversation with the author, May 2014.