Peter Davis is a prize-winning contemporary figurative painter and elected member of the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts.
His work has been shown in exhibitions throughout the UK. In 2017 he was shortlisted by Artists & Illustrators, the country’s leading art magazine, for Artist of the Year.
The Zeitgeist exhibition at Warrington Museum and Art Gallery is a series of portraits which explore the subject of humanity and our relationship with technology. By documenting our digital and social mediated world, Peter’s work can be read as a social documentary that poses questions about our digital epoch and the status of the human being within contemporary society.
What are you trying to express with Zeitgeist?
My Zeitgeist series of paintings explore the subject of humanity and our relationship with personal technology. I see this body of work as a social documentary that poses questions about the status of the human being in our digital age.
My inspiration for this work came from our ever-more consuming attachment to personal technology. We are all obsessed with it, and it’s quickly becoming a force that governs modern life. Personal devices are fundamentally altering the way we interact with each other, and this change is what I wanted to document through my work.
I am particularly fascinated by how the physical and digital versions of ourselves are constantly changing. I read an interesting statistic recently that 80% of us admit to being active on our smartphones while in mid-conversation with friends.
It’ll be interesting to see how the technology addiction paintings that I’m doing now will be viewed in 10 or 20 years. Will we still be looking down at our devices like zombies or will technology be embedded into us by then? This body of work has such a rich vein of inspiration that I don’t ever see me turning my back on this series.
What does it mean to you to have all the paintings together for the first time in an exhibition?
My Zeitgeist paintings take on a completely different meaning when they’re shown together – it’s a case of the power of the collective – and so it’s fantastic that Warrington Museum & Art Gallery have been able to display all the paintings so far in this series. Hopefully by bringing my paintings together visitors to the gallery will immediately see that my work is loaded with significance.
Why portraiture as your chosen form of expression?
Before becoming a professional artist I spent over twenty-five years as a conceptual art director in advertising agencies. The work I did in my previous career became increasingly centered around people using personal devices as their primary touchpoint - this has undoubtedly influenced me to become the portrait artist that I am today.
As a social realist painter, my aim as is to capture the zeitgeist (the spirit of the age). Seeing people glued to their devices is so commonplace that I don’t think we give it a second glance anymore. I started this body of work in 2015 to reflect our increasingly addictive relationship with the technology that now dominates our lives. As the American writer, Henry Miller, puts it : “What the painter sees he is duty-bound to share. Usually, he makes us see and feel what ordinarily we ignore or are immune to.”
What are the key factors that you are looking for in a good portrait?
I believe how we look at people says as much about who we are as who they are. At a portrait sitting I like to observe my subjects and not pose them - I want to document normal life. It’s really important that they settle into using their device and get lost in the technology, because that’s when their idiosyncrasies come out. Everyone has a subconscious facial expression when they’re in their own world – it’s very different to a posed expression that you’d get in a formal sitting – it’s very revealing.
Juxtaposing a highly detailed figure against a flat coloured background is a deliberate combination that I’ve created. Hopefully it makes people reconsider the banality of the person’s pose in the painting, challenge the immediacy of perception and suggest a sense of isolation and divorce from the real world.
I absolutely love the work of Berkley L Hendricks. His figurative portraits - the subject matter and graphic compositions in his limited palette series are right up my street. Amy Sherald is another American artist that I’m a huge fan of (her work has many parallels with Hendricks). Her incredible portrait of Michelle Obama has recently pushed her into the limelight.
People are taking thousands of selfies every day, does that change the nature of portraiture?
There’s a great quote by the art historian Simon Schama that says “We live in a paradoxical moment when an image is caught and then we look down at it, since the downward gaze has come to consume a monstrous part of our daily routine. If we are not all Narcissus, we are nearly all echo. We have never been more networked, yet we have never been more trapped by solipsism.”
When it comes to my Zeitgeist series, there is an intentional dichotomy between the technology-centric images that I like to observe and my traditional method of painting. Whilst the scenes that I see can pass in seconds, it can take weeks for me to preserve in paint the essence of a fleeting moment.
I like to deconstruct and reconstruct the people and compositions that I see around me, transforming them from their original context. I believe that this forces the viewer to focus on what that person is doing – and in doing so, it creates a psychological conflict in the painting’s composition between humanity and technology.
Do you think technology is changing our aesthetic appreciation?
I think we’re now more visually aware than we have ever been. Social platforms like Instagram and Snapchat are encouraging everyone to tell stories using compelling imagery, and as a result, our generation is creating incredibly aesthetic visual content everyday without really thinking about it.
A quote on your website talks about emotive hierarchy, could you explain that for us and tell us how that affects the work you do?
The art historian Simon Schama reckons: “In the age of Snapchat, where pictures self-erase after a matter of a few minutes, and where the sheer number of selfies stored on a device militates against an emotive hierarchy, paintings need to be exceptionally powerful to make the case for endurance.”
I find the notion of ‘emotive hierarchy’ really interesting. Social platforms rely on people liking and retweeting content which is essentially an emotive hierarchy. The majority of what we see on these channels has already been vetted by our social circle and judged worthy of sharing.
So as an artist, being able to focus on the often-overlooked elements of contemporary society is something I really enjoy about my work - whether that is capturing the solitary absorption of technology addicts in an isolated situation, or highlighting the paradox of the anti-social nature of social media.
What’s more important beauty or meaning and why?
That’s an easy one to answer - meaning is always more important than beauty. Sadly however, in our age of the selfie, there’s an increasing preoccupation with one’s own image and for people to look better, or happier, than they perceive themselves to be.
As a portrait painter my aim is to capture the essence of someone: the idiosyncrasies and nuances that make them unique.
Physical beauty is inherently shallow, whereas meaningful character is so much more compelling.