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Pigmented Memories

Looking back at a life of images



Drunken mobs and brass bands heave with sound and excitement. A matador is hooked in the armpit, his jacket torn open. Three horses drag a dead bull across the dirt.

In 1965, painter Peter Holbrook sat in the stands at a Mexico City bullfight, taking photos and reeling at the spectacle. His memory of the experience is a mixture of emotion and noise, but his photos record the event in garish detail. The light that burned those negatives doesn't lie, but like old photographs, memories fade with time. In his November show, Collected Stories, Holbrook's new work looks at past experiences. "Jumping back that far, it's fresh material," he says with a nostalgic nod. "I'm back in that situation in my head."

Painting from photographs is not a new thing for Holbrook. Indeed, he's built a career out of it. For nearly 50 years he's been wandering the west, photographing scenes "where an easel cannot go," and returning to his studio to take his time crafting compositions from the resulting photos. Some die-hard plein aire painters may shun the idea of working from photos, but with characteristic confidence Holbrook declares, "That's their problem." Gruff assertions aside, Holbrook's success and national recognition prove that painting and photography share a common bond.

Tapping a hand-rolled cigarette from a flip-top tin, the painter crosses his spacious Redway studio to fetch some coffee. A lighter flicks. A spoon clinks against the wall of a cup and he returns, smoke curling past his red flannel shirt toward his trimmed white mustache and heavy-lidded, penetrating gaze. Holbrook's hand-built studio reflects his meticulous paintings. Panels in the ceiling shift to selectively control natural light. An easel hangs from pulleys that Holbrook, who paints sitting down, can raise and lower to reach each part as needed.

"I'm not going to stand in a snow drift up to my thighs just to get a painting," he says. For Holbrook, working from photographs releases him from the demands of nature and time. He can hang out on a limb over a river, or even snap shots from the middle of the river, mingling the flexibility of a photographer with the eye of a painter.

Working from photos also allows for unintended perspectives and happy accidents. The variances of light, film exposure, developing and even scanning of negatives sometimes create scenes that cause him to pause and think, "I like that! I never would have thought of that." However, it's Holbrook's brushwork that brings these scenes to life. "Painting is just a richer medium by far," he says. The colors are more vibrant, there's a potential to manipulate the image and "the fact that you know that the marks are made by hand gives them a human relationship that photos often don't have."

Holbrook's photos document his experiences, but photographic precision is not his intent. When painting, he's seeking the story behind the moment; crafting an image that depicts how the world appeared to him at that specific time and place. For example, Holbrook points to a series of paintings created from nighttime shots of his 1969 Chicago neighborhood. The film was black and white, but when he inadvertently scanned his negatives under a color-film setting the result was inspiring. In "LaSalle Street — Out My Window," street lamps explode into hazy yellow stars and cars pull flaming asteroid taillights through the darkness. There's a fluid, expressionistic quality to the piece, while the tight perspective and precise details hint at the painting's photographic origin.

The stories Holbrook weaves in his paneled compositions "read like a comic book or graphic novel." At the same time, the didactic quality of these paintings helps viewers find the narratives embedded in his more straightforward landscapes. In "Night and Day in the Queen's Garden," a line of brightly lit sandstone hoodoos stand like candles on a birthday cake. Behind them, shadows creep up the steep Bryce Canyon walls "like water in a bathtub." Nature crafted these marvels, but the painting captures Holbrook's movement through time and space, his efforts and experiences in this otherworldly setting. Each brushstroke also tells a story, laying down a visceral record of his movements across the canvas, his use of pattern, his choice of color.

For this reason, Holbrook only paints from his own photographs. "I like that feeling to them," he says, "that I was there and you are seeing the scene through my eyes."

Delving into a lifetime of archived photos has allowed Holbrook to draw upon distant memories, reviving moments he had "presumably forgotten." It also gives viewers a rare glimpse into his creative process. Life and light intertwine, preserving much more than a picture.

"Collected Stories" will be on display at the Upstairs Gallery in Arcata through Dec. 5. A reception for the artist will be held during Arts! Arcata from 6 to 9 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 14.


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