at Goldman-Kraft Gallery
Canadian Peter Aspell’s paintings, inspired by the traditional iconography of ancient races, are magical and moving. Aspell, who was born in 1918, combines the virtuosity of a mature painter with the exuberant energy characteristic of youth. Striving to achieve variety as well as consistency, Aspell usually–but not always–develops his subject without becoming repetitious.
The contents of these vivid oils on canvas and paper fall into two main categories: transcendent, primitive-looking female figures, and Viking funeral ships burning at sea. The artist builds his images out of layer upon layer of spatula-applied paint. In the six large canvases, the brightest ruby reds and yellow oranges usually make up the underlayers, while more muted shades of mauve, sienna, green, and violet provide the overpainting. By scratching the outlines of his figures into these layers, Aspell enlivens the imagery while revealing his wide- ranging palette.
In Ancient Landscape With Boli, the dominant overlayer of mauve simultaneously subdues and accentuates the bright blue hand at the left edge of the composition. The mauve overlayer has a similar effect on the red orange outline of the central crudely etched female shape and the pottery, brooms, and abstract markings that surround her. The picture is completed by several masklike floating faces and a pair of elongated pipes extending outward from the female’s head. Because Ancient Landscape With Boli unites its loud and quiet colors so harmoniously, it is perhaps the most visually appealing work in the show. In addition, the objects pique our interest; most fascinating are the pipes. Positioned as they are, they seem to present the female as a deity. The lines scratched into the areas near her become lines of upward motion; the figure seems to be rising above the trappings of her earthly life toward a celestial domain.
The motif of the naked female deity crowned by pipes appears again in Ancient Landscape With Red Shields, another gorgeous canvas of orange, mauve, sienna, and red balanced by small areas of blue, purple, and dark green. Clearly an image of the human spirit triumphing over death, it depicts a female figure rising out of her tomb to the left of the central goddess figure. The goddess herself is about to alight–feet first–on top of a yellow emblematic sun.
It seems curious that Aspell chooses the female almost exclusively to express the recurring theme of physical and spiritual transcendence. Did primitive cultures consider men incapable of entering this higher plane? Considering the female capacity to reproduce, however, it is understandable that early races attributed a spiritual dimension to women’s (re)generative powers. And if we stretch the metaphor of female transcendence a little further, we might also include the psychological traits identified with women: nurturing, cooperation, patience, and intuition. These qualities are surely more useful in gaining spiritual enlightenment than the male-identified traits of aggression and rationality. The male figure is significantly absent in this work, represented only by the two warrior shields of fierce red.
Aspell consistently locates his female primitives deep in a surrounding landscape of earth. Only their heads traverse the high horizon line to become part of the mysterious nighttime sky, the domain of the spirit. And he mixes up the iconography nicely so that the essence of different ancient cultures seems to flow, serene and unbroken, into present-day social and ecological concerns. In Ancient Landscape With Flying Figures, a female with long, exaggerated legs and open arms rises from a tomb at the center of the canvas. To her left is the upper half of a flying female with pendulous breasts and a red, black, and white African mask. To the right of the central figure is an Egyptian- looking mummy. The primitive transcultural equation of the feminine with earth, sky, and spirituality combines with a vibrant palette to suggest that the way in which ancient cultures held the land sacred might have great relevance to today’s personal and global problems.
The union of opposites must occur at some point on the path to enlightenment. Aspell’s “Fireship” series acts as the counterpoint to the female-deity pictures. Only one of this series occupies a large canvas; the rest are painted on smaller sheets of heavy white paper. The compositions in this group are almost identical: a ship with burning sail is afloat in the center of an ocean of greens and blues. Several large, brilliantly colored fish swim around the ship. This series is extremely poignant, for the symbolically represented male is utterly alone. The engulfing flames assure ritualized purification, but the paintings hold no evidence of transcendence. Viking tradition held this type of burial at sea to be a great honor, but Aspell’s series seems to reveal a rather empty end compared to the rich promise of afterlife in the female-deity pictures. It makes the burning ships all the more sad. But perhaps this is the only fitting end for the warrior who, by definition, lives to kill.
This series has some formal problems. One has to do with switching from canvas to a paper base: the canvas can absorb all the thick, luscious layers of paint in a way that the less porous paper cannot. And though the paint layers integrate well on the cloth, they often end up looking too pushed around and roughly built up on the paper. Another problem is the regularity of the compositions: the images are spatially arranged in exactly the same way. Aspell depends too heavily on color changes to provide the necessary variation from picture to picture. Sometimes he tries to liven things up by adding a different type of creature–a bird or a sea wraith–to the array of fish, but the pictorial arrangement remains the same. One can only speculate as to why the fire ships lack the diversity apparent in the works devoted to women.
There are two more groups of oils on paper. One continues the woman-centered regeneration theme. In the other, Aspell uncharacteristically employs a collage organization and reduces his palette to black and white with an underlayer of gold. In these the theme is again transcendence, and the iconography is decidedly Egyptian.
The few works in this black-and-white group seem enigmatic, perhaps because the individual elements are difficult to discern. Often the pigment is messy, so that one object sinks partially into another. But this seems also to work in the images’ favor, for we look at them harder to discover clues. It also approximates what we might experience if we found a real ancient relic; its markings would possibly be eroded and undefined.
Ancient Landscape XXI With Fox is one of the rare works in which a man and woman face death together. They are about to step into an open grave out of which a strange, mummylike figure has arisen. A pair of long white arms reaches up from the grave. The rest of the space is filled by ancient symbols and a skull with an X marked over it. This X frequently appears in Aspell’s work, probably denoting the Roman numeral for ten. In An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J.C. Cooper writes that this number represents the cosmos, creation itself. The number ten “contains all numbers and therefore all things and possibilities. . . . Ten is the perfect number, the return to unity.” We know Aspell’s symbols have specific meanings; and a little investigation will reveal much, increasing our appreciation for the work.
Like most of us, Aspell understands life as a continuous challenge to integrate seemingly disparate things, to give them some sort of harmonious order. Our world is in a constant state of flux. But amid the chaos and fragmentation of the modern world there are still a few universals, conditions we share not only with each other but with those long turned to dust. Aspell wisely looks to ancient symbolism to express the present world’s urgent need for a sense of unity. We have begun the task of integration on a number of levels–political, sexual, racial, and economic–but the process is painful. Aspell’s work beautifully, enthusiastically advocates acknowledging our mortality as a path toward harmony. We all face the same ultimate mystery of death and what lies beyond. To recognize and honor our commonality is spiritually advanced as well as pragmatic. After all, why should we hurt our own cause?