Artist In The Spotlight: Peter Davis MAFA
"Seeing people glued to their devices is so commonplace that we don’t give it a second glance anymore."
Prize-winning professional figurative painter and elected member of the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts (MAFA) Peter Davis, caught up with ArtsHaus to discuss his latest work, focusing on our relationship as humans with an increasingly technology driven world.
In 2017 Peter was shortlisted by Artists & Illustrators magazine for Artist of the Year and in 2018 came runner-up in the Greater Manchester Arts Prize, judged by Alistair Hudson, Director of The Whitworth. He is represented by Saul Hay Gallery.
What made you want to pursue a career as an artist? What did you do beforehand?
When I was a young boy, my Mum used to take me to art galleries and I was always enthralled by the paintings that told stories about the world that the artists lived in.
I decided I wanted to become a professional artist in 2015. By that point, I had been a conceptual art director in London and Manchester for twenty-five years and the advertising campaigns I was doing were becoming increasingly centred towards people using personal devices.
As an artist, it felt like a natural development to start documenting, through my paintings, the addictive relationship we now have with our technology.
Son of Zelda - Acrylic on Board - 65x55cm framed
What drives you to capture our interaction as people with the tech driven world we now live in?
I think the digital revolution that we’re living through right now is absolutely fascinating. Fifteen years ago words like Alexa, tweet and hashtag were hardly said, and they meant something completed different to today.
I’m currently creating a body of work called Zeitgeist that explores the subject of humanity and our relationship with personal technology. We’ve all got digital addiction these days and it’s now become the force that governs modern life. Seeing people glued to their devices is so commonplace that we don’t give it a second glance anymore.
Are your subjects/portraits real or imagined? How do you go about constructing your vision for the artwork?
For me, it’s important that I meet the people that I am going to be painting; so all my pieces start with a portrait sitting. I believe how we look at a person says as much about who we are as who they are. At that sitting I like to observe and not pose them, as I want to capture them as naturally as possible. I might do some preliminary sketches and then I’ll take hundreds of photographs – essentially creating a 360° map of them, that I can refer to later, when I’m working on the final composition.
With my Zeitgeist series, I tend to deconstruct and reconstruct the people and the composition, transforming them from their original context. This forces the viewer to focus on what that person’s doing – and in doing so, I feel it creates a psychological conflict in the painting between humanity and the technology.
VR Zombie - Acrylic on board - 65x55cm framed
How do you feel about new mediums of art that use technology to create it?
I’m all for it. It’s hugely exciting as an artist and there is so much at our fingertips these days. Technology is continually opening up new ways of creating art and more artists are beginning to experiment with different technologies like Virtual Reality and 3D scanning. Last year for example, artist Jonathan Yeo created using the world’s first bronze sculpture Google’s Tilt Brush VR painting app.
When it comes to my Zeitgeist series, there is a deliberate dichotomy in my work between my technology-centric images and my traditional process of painting using traditional methods. And I really like that counterpoint.
Your work borders on the photorealistic. Do you feel that photography has changed your practice and what you try to achieve with your portraits?
Social platforms like Instagram and Snapchat are encouraging us all to tell stories using compelling imagery and as a result everyone’s now creating incredibly aesthetic visual content everyday without really thinking about it.
As a consequence, I think society is now becoming more visually aware than it’s ever been which means, as an artist, you have to stay at the top of your game and your artwork has to be even more engaging.
I believe my selection, simplification and painting process gives my portraits a hugely different quality to that of a photograph. The more you look at my work, the more complexities unfold from what might at first feel like a straightforward painting. I like to add or remove details within a composition, move elements around and play with reflected light – whichI hope makes them more powerful.
The Next Chapter - Acrylic on board - 55x44cm framed
Which artists do you look up to or inspire you?
Throughout art history, artists such as Caravaggio, George de la Tour and Joseph Wright of Derby have mastered chiaroscuro, the technique of painting from light to dark. Incorporating strong lighting into my paintings, like the glow from a smartphone, is something that I really enjoy doing.
I also absolutely love the work of Barkley 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 pushed her into the limelight recently.
(Left: Barkley L. Hendricks, What's Going On (1974) - Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery / Right: Amy Sherald presenting her portrait of Mrs. Obama at the National Portrait Gallery’s unveiling ceremony. © 2018 Pete Souza)
How do you see your practice evolving in future?
Painting people and their relationship with personal technology is such an interesting and rich vein of inspiration that I don’t ever see me turning my back on this series. There are so many compositions that I continually want to explore, I always feel like I’m thinking four or five paintings ahead!
I feel honoured that people have started to collect my paintings and I am looking forward to seeing how my work develops over the next fifteen years, as our digital lives evolve.