By Annette Hinkle
Though artists are often competitive by nature, they also tend to develop a sense of camaraderie with others of their ilk. After all, making art can be a very lonely occupation. Hours in the studio can skew anyone’s judgment, so it’s good to have a compatriot who understands your frustrations, shares in your triumphs and pushes you to explore new territory.
Oliver Peterson and Ray Colleran have just such a friendship. The two artists met by chance one day when Colleran came into the East Hampton cigar store where Peterson was working. It was just the first coincidence in a series of events that seem to have set the tone in their relationship ever since.
“We hit it off and started hanging out,” says Peterson. “It’s weird for me. I studied art and painting, but the energy between us was so strong. We shared a studio and a show at Ashawagh Hall. People loved it. Then Jennifer Cross from Ross School invited us to do seminars for the kids there.”
“Our friendship’s at the root of the work I do now — it was the start of everything,” he adds.
This weekend, Colleran and Peterson will host “Objects” their second two-man show at Ashawagh Hall in Springs. While their respective canvases will be the primary focus of the exhibit, there will also be an element of surprise to encourage visitors to take an active role as well.
“In conceptualizing this show, we decided to go with an objects idea,” explains Peterson. “We both collect stuff and we both love art as object. I like something you can hold in your hand. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The amazing thing is, things can become valuable that had no value before.”
So Peterson and Colleran are populating the space at Ashawagh Hall with objects, including, an “Art Automat.” In fact, it’s an old cabinet that Peterson appropriated (don’t worry, he had permission) during renovation of East Hampton High School. Each numbered drawer of the cabinet will contain a different artistic treasure that visitors can take home with them.
It’s not unlike what Peterson does in collecting materials for his own canvases, which incorporate an incredible amount of found material. Old flyers, illustrations, product packaging, maps, words on paper, box tops — you name it — all is fair game as potential artistic material.
“I have boxes and boxes of stuff,” says Peterson who lives in Water Mill and admits his wife is sometimes less than thrilled with the volume of material he keeps. “I have a big Tupperware box full of cut out things, picked up things. I love the look of material that is decaying or falling apart, and sometime I’ll use techniques to make them decay and melt into the painting.”
Peterson’s works are built up through an intricate layering technique and are quite time consuming. Though it’s not a term he particularly embraces, some would say the technique is evocative of collage.
“I shy away from the word,” admits Peterson who sees it as more of a craft term. “I prefer calling it a mixed media piece. But I use paint in a similar way with collage elements — fabric, paper, little blocks of paint dripping. I try to play around with surface.”
As a result, Peterson ends up with artwork loaded with complex imagery — viewers will often find messages emerge through sheer happenstance based on the juxtaposition of material incorporated into those layers. Whether it’s the subconscious at work or divine intervention, it’s something that brings entirely unexpected meaning to every piece.
“I like to play with juxtaposition,” says Peterson, “a top from a vintage box of nails, a pamphlet with Jesus on it, then a Superman image, a map of Israel and a bacon package. You can find jokes, and it’s up to the person to decode the stuff.”
And sometimes, the coincidental meaning buried in a piece can border on the profound.
Peterson points to a work he made using things found in his father’s basement after he had died. Much of it was memorabilia from Peterson’s youth.
“It was all this crap and it was moldy and damp,” recalls Peterson. “There was a riflery recertification from camp, baseball cards I drew, pictures of spirit guides.”
Among the items he incorporated into his work was a page from a 1950s Red Cross manual — an illustration showing the proper way for three people to carry an unconscious man.
Like any good friend, it was Colleran who first noticed deeper meaning in that particular piece.
“I said, ‘It’s the three sons holding their father,’” recalls Colleran, referring to Oliver and his two brothers. “His mother was standing there and she said, ‘I was just thinking that.’”
“That’s how a Jesuit once described to me how poetry is written,” says Colleran. “It’s written when something is in your mind, and when others read it, the imagery, the spirit behind the words that creates the poem, emerge. You didn’t go into it thinking about a piece about your dad. It was your stream of consciousness.”
“That image of the men holding the other guy is so poignant,” adds Colleran. “It’s also an image from my dad’s era.”
Like Peterson, Colleran also creates work related to his late father — which may be partially what binds them in friendship. But unlike Peterson who studied art, Colleran, a native of Seattle now living in Sag Harbor, didn’t follow the art school path.
“I studied philosophy in college and was going to go to law school,” he says. “I decided to take a year off first. Then my girlfriend gave me a paint set.”
That’s when Colleran started following a new track as a self-taught artist. But his current work grew from an entirely different medium — journaling, a daily habit instilled in him as teenager at a Jesuit high school on the West Coast.
“I kept a journal since 1982 and wrote every day,” explains Colleran. “One day in 1998 or 99, I got really angry. It just wasn’t working out. I had been an artist for a while by that time. A friend gave me this large book, I ripped up the book. Instead of writing in my journal, I would use a page and make that my journal entry of the day.”
Those journal pages eventually became artwork. A couple years later, someone wanted to buy one of those pages. Then someone else bought three, and suddenly, Colleran found his work was selling.
“I had switched from being an oil painter to someone who painted on book pages,” says Colleran.
At first glance, it does seem that Peterson and Colleran share a working method — imagery and text appropriated from other sources which is layered with media to alter and transform it. But whereas Peterson uses a wide range of source material, Colleran has stuck with one single source document for years — that book which was given to him by his friend.
“The first book was a gift. I researched it to make sure it wasn’t expensive or important,” explains Colleran who comments on American politics in his work via the military industrial complex — that term made popular by President Eisenhower as the Cold War was heating up. “I just spent time thinking about science and technology — I think Einstein would have stayed a patent clerk if he knew his ideas would split the atom.”
Colleran has since procured several more copies of the same book for use in his art. Though he prefers not to divulge the title, he describes it as a self-published book by General Dynamics, the firm which makes nuclear submarines, among other military items, just across the sound in Groton, Conn.
It’s a detail Colleran wasn’t aware of when he moved to the East End seven years ago, and ultimately ironic given the fact his father served on a nuclear sub in the 1960s — thus avoiding Vietnam, but not the radiation poisoning that resulted from his service. Chalk it up to yet another odd juxtaposition in a series of unusual coincidences that has marked the friendship of Ray Colleran and Oliver Peterson.
These two, it seems, have a lot in common. And while artistic friendships have been known to lead to competition and feelings of jealousy, those aren’t emotions that enter into the conversation for either Colleran or Peterson.
“Every time I come and visit Ray, when I leave I’m always inspired and motivated by his stuff,” says Peterson. “I’m growing as an artist from our friendship. I think it’s true for both of us.”
“One plus one doesn’t always equal two,” adds Colleran with a smile. “Sometimes it equals four.”
Spoken like a true friend.
“Objects” by Ray Colleran and Oliver Peterson will be on view at Ashawagh Hall (780 Springs Fireplace Road, East Hampton) this Saturday and Sunday, February 2 and 3 from noon to 5 p.m. A reception will be held Saturday from 5 to 9 p.m. on Saturday.