Peter Illig is an artist I have known for years, whose work has long intrigued me. His black and white paintings and drawings depict people and objects reminiscent of 1950’s America, with figures in off-putting situations or juxtaposed with metaphorical imagery. Expertly rendered in oil paint and charcoal, his work feels like film noir combined with James Rosenquist’s paintings. Here is my recent interview with him, and be sure to check out his work at peterillig.com and Walker Fine Art in Denver.
J: I am wracking my brain trying to remember exactly how it is we know each other. I think we might go back as far as my time working at Bill Havu’s gallery in the early 2000s. Or maybe it was when I was a member of CORE? Can YOU remember?
P: Yes, it was from when you worked at Havu, we spoke a few times. But also I visited a show of yours at CORE, and I had my brother with me, who was visiting from Philadelphia. We all spoke briefly about quantum physics, as I recall. Can’t remember which year.
J: The fragmentation in your work is emblematic of how we as a society have been cordoned off into groups and tribes, and yet we are trying to work together. Are you seeing new themes and imagery show up as related to the “crazy pants” events of the past year?
P. Illig, 2015, oil on canvas, 62×42″
Walker Fine Art, Denver CO, USA
P: My paintings (and drawings) are often divided into zones, but I use formal elements to bring the various parts together. So they do walk a line between ‘fragmented’ and ‘unified’. It’s a literal way to show the fragmented nature of society and by extension, ourselves, internally. I have so many interests, so many areas I study, that pictorial content comes to me from a lot of sources.
I refer to it as “mining the past.” And I am painfully aware of my own “shadow side,” to use Carl Jung’s term. I’m not a “dark” person at all, but I tend to use images of conflict, of sexuality, of power struggle.
Lately, post-election, I’ve viewed my own work differently, and I expect other viewers will as well. I will probably never literally address the political situation, but the implications are certainly there.
I think it’s time to title a painting “Crazy Pants.”
J: So much of your imagery is from historical sources, or seems to be. How does history- particularly American history post WWII- influence your work? Also, is film noir an influence for you?
P: On the surface the images in my artworks look like scenes or figures from American history, but they are all metaphors for aspects of power, deeply felt emotions, and sexual undercurrents. I’m interested in the possibility that distinctly American images from decades past can still have currency in the 21st century, and on a global reach. Are they so iconic that people of several generations and nationalities can understand them? Like Jazz music, can it “reach” people everywhere and have meaning to them? This is on the semiotic level, where images can carry universal meanings, through the spread of culture. Black and white photography (and my B&W drawings and paintings) have a certain “documentary” quality, the appearance of the real, the “ring of truth.”
Funny you should ask about “noir” – I was interviewed in 2013 for a magazine called “Noir Nation”. My paintings are often about those things found in noir: crisis, danger, sexuality, unclear motives, moods, and mystery, and they ‘work’ on several levels. There’s the immediate visual aspect, where the drawn or painted images are recognizable (not abstract or distorted) and the viewer relates right away. Now the viewer is looking closer and sees relationships between several juxtaposed or layered images: figures, objects, art history, and places. A narrative begins to emerge, ambiguous but unavoidable. There are emotional implications to the combinations of images: odd pairings, danger, crisis, sexual desire, dreams, psychological states.
J: You are like me in that you think painting remains relevant. Who are some of your favorite painters working today?
P: Yes, it clearly is relevant, whether abstract or representational. In my case, the realism allows the viewer to understand the content of the painting and hopefully, upon further reflection, interpret the metaphors, the narratives, and even the philosophical implications of the painting. I have an intention, but as we know, every viewer takes away their own personal meanings.
I look at Chloe Early, Robert Longo, David Salle, Mark Tansey, Jerome Witkin, Dana Schutz, Vincent Desiderio, Zhong Biao. An early influence was James Rosenquist.
J: What do you look for in a good painting?
P: I look for struggle, that the artist worked and reworked the surface or the subject. I’m not usually interested in slick work but I do like some photo-realists. I like art works that show the mind of the artist and his or her hand. I admire draftsmanship but I don’t judge a work by that solely. I like painterly works.
J: What are you working on now?
P: After years of working only with oil paint on canvas, or, to a lesser degree, charcoal on paper, I started incorporating neon signs into my art works. I will have a show of 4 neon sign paintings at Walker Fine Art in Denver, opening late April 2017. I have a large painting installation with a neon sign showing right now at the McNichols building in downtown Denver, along with other artists. That’s up until May 7, 2017.
I avoided these sorts of additions before because I feared they were ‘gimmicks’ but then it seemed a natural extension of what I was doing, the urban images, the environments that neon signs suggest. I am looking for new, more creative (to me) ways to create art, so I’ve made art signs that mimic Las Vegas flashing light signs. No one has seen these yet, except a few artist friends.
J: I moved back to Denver recently and am struck by how much art there is in Denver. What is your take on how the Denver art scene has changed in the past few years?
P: It is a pretty busy and vibrant scene. Schools such as RMCAD are producing very forward-thinking, innovative young artists who are not often working with traditional 2D materials and methods. Go to Redline and you’ll see what I mean. There are also a few terrific young artists who have moved here recently and are getting some notice. You see the kids putting up pop-up shows in interesting non-traditional spaces. (I say “the kids” in an endearing way; I mean the younger artists in their 20s, early 30s. I sometimes use that term because I am an older, mid-career artist, and I was a teacher for decades, so I want to be encouraging to the young people working in Denver).
The big issue right now is the artists’ co-ops, that are great spaces for all artists, are being threatening by high property taxes and rent costs and are moving out. That said, there are also very good established painters, an older generation, that are making terrific work in traditional formats.
Thank you, Peter, for such insight into your fascinating paintings!