Houston-based artist Kevin Peterson creates hyper-realistic paintings that nevertheless seem dream-like, indeed just one of the many juxtapositions that his work grapples with such as bondage versus freedom, support versus restraint and resignation versus persistence. Overtly symbolic, his work combines a dystopian sensibility, distilled in the desolate urban landscapes that he graphically depicts, with the peaceful composure of his young protagonists, usually a small girl followed or accompanied by wild animals. Despite their predatory nature, the aggressiveness of the grizzly bears, wolves, foxes and hyenas that Kevin paints has been effaced to be replaced by obedience and resoluteness.
The themes that these set-ups elicit, such as fear, isolation and loneliness, as well as the longing for companionship and the strength required for survival, speak both about the harsh reality of life and about Kevin’s own personal trauma—he was arrested and eventually lost his job as a probation officer due to drugs and alcohol abuse which he later overcame before becoming an artist. Kevin spoke to Yatzer about his artistic practice and his personal journey.
(Answers have been condensed and edited for clarity.)
Your paintings are a marvel of hyper-realistic mastery. How did you end up painting in this manner? Did you at first experiment with other styles or did it come naturally? How long did it take you to perfect your skills?
I’m still perfecting them! I have always had an aptitude for realism but mostly it’s something that takes thousands of hours of practice. I definitely dabbled in other styles but I always find my way back to realism and figurative painting. I just really enjoy it.
The amount of detail in your paintings is astounding. How intensive and time-consuming is the creative process for each artwork? Does the great amount of concentration that is required function as a kind of meditation or therapy?
They take a lot of time. Anywhere from 40 to 200 hours depending on the size and the complexity. I don’t know much about meditation but I do think it acts that way for me. My mind has the tendency to wonder as I’m refining an artwork. This is fine sometimes, but for me it tends to wonder to dark places more than happy places. Just how my brain is wired I guess. To fight this tendency I listen to tons of audio books.
Do you paint by imagination or do you use existing locations to inspire you? Are the persons depicted in your work people you know?
These are all real places that I’ve visited and photographed as reference. I may combine images or add a fire or smoke in the background but for the most part, they exist. The subjects are friends’ children or friends of friends’ children that I photograph and use as a reference for paintings.
Although you have a degree in Fine Art, your artistic endeavors took off while in rehab. What prompted you to begin painting and how did it help you get out of the dark place you found yourself in?
After I got sober I just really needed something that would occupy my time and something that would make me feel good. Painting filled that void for me and I’m really thankful I had it to turn to. Art always meant a lot to me since I was a kid, but it became an obsession after rehab. Maybe I was just trading addictions, but at least this one is positive.
How did your background in psychology and your time of drug and alcohol abuse influence your work as an artist?
I did social work after graduating and I was exposed to many different walks of life. It was difficult work, but increased my worldview and I think it made me more empathetic to the plight of others, especially those born into difficult situations.
And then going through drug/alcohol treatment programs, there is a ton of reflection on your past and growing up and all those things that shape you as an adult. All that reflection is a big reason why so much of my work includes kids and addresses growing up.
Why do you only paint female subjects? Is it because female nature is perceived to be more peaceful as opposed to the inherent aggressiveness of male nature or is it perhaps symbolic of the power of (re)birth?
I do find females to be more inherently innocent and maybe even more vulnerable which adds to the juxtaposition of the settings. Kids are all the more vulnerable though regardless of their sex. I paint male subjects as well, just not as frequently.
Your paintings hover between pessimism and optimism. Is that ambiguous balance an artistic statement, sociopolitical commentary, or does it primarily reflect your state of mind?
All three I would say. The kids and animals in my work aren’t exactly; they're considering this new world. Things are crumbling, but it’s not a reason for fear. It’s a new beginning, a clean slate. I personally hate and fear change, but it’s important to remember that change can lead to good. It can make you adjust your trajectory, reevaluate your priorities. I suppose the kids in my paintings are a reflection of a hope that I have that people will learn from past mistakes and face the future with a sense of calm reason.
There is a principal juxtaposition in your work between the decayed landscapes and the innocent children who navigate through them. Why did you choose such iconography to express yourself?
I like thinking about our world in different stages. Seeing how the things we make crumble and decay. Seeing nature take over when it’s allowed to, but even nature is cyclical. A forest burns down, but it grows back stronger, it’s just a matter of time.
My settings always have an end of the world look to them. I don’t really believe in an apocalypse type situation, but it is a different world than what we are living in currently. A new phase I would say. Things are crumbling, but it’s not a reason for fear. It’s a new beginning, a clean slate.
What role do the wild animals play in this uneasy entente between the dystopian surroundings and the children’s hopeful determination? What is the significance of their subdued-cum-tamed condition? Is the rejection of their predatory nature symbolic of the possibility of change?
Sometimes the animals are the kids’ guardians, sometimes they are a representation of their inner strength, sometimes they are just companions. Sometimes they are all of those things. I feel like I have a different narrative in my head for each piece. The subdued nature along with the crowns I sometimes put on them, symbolize a hopeful change in our current priorities as a culture. Honouring our children and our environment. I don't understand why we choose to neglect either one considering how important they are to the future.
What are your working on right now? What plans do you have for the future?
I will be back at my Gallery in Los Angeles, Thinkspace, for a solo show in the spring of 2019.