During a series of coincidental and fortuitous events, I was introduced to Peter Wu’s art in a Santa Monica apartment recently and was instantly captivated. While other birthday party guests in the living area were focused on Wonder Woman, I could not get my eyes off the photograph above the mantle. I inquired with the host, and he revealed that the artist’s name was Peter Wu and he would be having a show at Greene Exhibitions soon.
Soon after the party, I contacted Peter and asked if he would do an interview prior to his show. Peter invited me to his new studio in Rampart Village. When I arrived to Peter’s studio, one of the first things he asked me was if I knew how to play “cricket.” Since I had never played, I was anxious to learn. Slightly nervous, I did not understand the scoring process at first. I tossed the darts anyway, trying to aim at the stark, white board. Peter kicked my butt. The game was, however, a great way to relax in each other’s company before talking about his art.
Clifford Eberly: I have been thinking about revisionism and the contemporary artist’s role in making art. How would you describe your relationship to art history?
Peter Wu: I think I am trying to create my own history. I respect what has gone before but growing up in a small town in Canada and being one of the only minorities for 20 years, I had to carve out my own path as I really didn’t fit anywhere.
CE: Artists are often criticized for being too nostalgic and self-indulgent, what is your perspective on this?
PW: Nostalgia, like any tool, when used properly can be effective. At times, we all fill in certain memories, sometimes embellish and have gaps. In my work I prefer to focus on these gaps. I am not precious about memories. I do not have a longing or nostalgia for them. They exist almost like objects; memories are a mist-like material.
CE: I like the idea of using memory as a non-precious material. Do you remember one of your first creative impulses?
PW: If you want me to nail down a specific time, I can’t. I started drawing at an early age and was encouraged to continue to do it. I wasn’t included in much of anything in the small town I grew up in, so art was my outlet.
CE: So you grew up in Canada, how did you end up in L.A.?
PW: Moved to the states to go to grad school at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999, and moved to L.A. after grad school.
CE: Has your recent studio relocation changed or influenced your new work?
PW: Yes, I love my new neighborhood. It feels more like a city and its closer to the ground here, in a metaphorical sense. Keeps me on my toes and I like that.
CE: Along with that, could you make the same work in say Africa or Amsterdam?
PW: No. A lot of my practice has to do with going out and findingobjects. So, location is essential to what kind of objects I can grab. Comparing Rampart Village to Los Feliz, objects are vastly different and not just in price. I find a lot more crazy knick-knacks here than I did over there. There’s a lot more thrift stores and 99 cent stores. They are kind of cultural artifacts because all the objects specific to that location cater to a specific consumer. So, if you go to Africa or China or Amsterdam or whatever, the objects would vary in quality, style and content.
CE: So then, all these objects and cultural artifacts are embedded with this aesthetic that is recognizable to that specific culture.
PW They reflect what we want or discard as consumers. It is kind of a nice, weird landscape that these little objects have that tell a lot about each country and it’s specific desires.
CE: So, you’re debuting your new series “Substantia Alba” in your upcoming exhibition. How do these objects function in that series?
PW: My family owned a Chinese restaurant when I was growing up. I used the floor-plan of that space as ruins and reveal or unearth other hidden remnants of objects. Together the remnants and ruins function as a sort of evacuation site for memory.
CE: So, you are using the ruins of the restaurant because it’s a functional structure like architecture, but it housed a social dynamic and not some intangible memory.
PW All memories are all either slightly fabricated or skewed because you can’t remember every detail and nuance. The restaurant was where my family was, and that was my social dynamic.
CE: Should concepts of appropriation effect the viewer’s perception of your works?
PW: Appropriation is a term I am at odds with. Sure, I use everyday objects that already have perceived meaning and history but I almost want them to shed their previous connotations altogether. Everything is appropriated nowadays, we appropriate a line, a shape, a color. Everything has a reference and a recall. It is how we decide to address that, reveal or conceal it, that attempts to give objects a new starting point. In my work, objects are renewed and given new life to haunt the present. The viewer is in the balance between what is familiar and what is strangely different.
CE: Do outside events, conversations, and popular culture inform your creative decision making process?
PW: Sure, there are little genius moments everywhere if you are keeping your eyes open. An artist approaches the world with a certain aesthetic lens on and notices things that relate to their current practice and philosophy. We tend to have selfish eyes.
CE: It was your series FFF that initially caught my eye. Tell me about the latest ones.
PW: The images of the new FFF’s are all arranged like junk altars. The arrangement is significant because it provides the work with a purpose. Whereas in the former ones I was more interested in the effect of flattening a three dimensional space and in their formal qualities. There were some things from my past in each piece– objects that I collected, or were given to me by family, or are symbolic to me and my wife’s relationship. The new works still feature things from my past as well as junk store tchotchkes but present them in an alternative way.
CE: Can you talk about the different uses of perspectival and perspective lines in your FFF photographs?
PW: In all the FFFs, the perspective lines flatten out the hierarchies between the objects. The perspectival lines going in and the starbursts going out in the most recent FFFs are functioning the same way but also playing with the idea that perspectival lines are meant to give the illusion of depth. So there is a dual action of flattening out and the illusion of perspective going on. What is left reveals the memory of what the objects were prior to being whitened out.
CE: Would you say the shift was deliberate?
PW: Yes, very deliberate. There is a difference between this new body of work and past work. With the previous Zzyzx’s and FFF’s they functioned like objects on top of a table which created juxtapositions and fissions between the objects directly because of their interaction on the table top. The table framed the objects. Now imagine those same objects on the same table, but now they are physically part of the table, that’s how the new work functions and differs. They are acting as a whole and convey significant form and purpose. This new show is based on memory and its gaps. The older ones were investigations on pushing formal boundaries and exploiting meaning in the traditional sense. Now I am adding this additional layer to make it more cohesive, more meaningful and hopefully more poetic.
CE: I don’t think there’s enough poetics when I walk into a gallery or space these days. It’s a subjective judgement but I like to work when I go see a show. There’s an emotive desire.
PW: I like people to work too. I don’t like everything in an exhibition to be connected through minor details. Like the button story that you heard over the audio which accompanies “Substantia Alba,” the poetry exists in the notion of, “how does one give meaning to an object when that object no longer exists?” The object is pulling away. It’s tangible but not.
CE: Do you think your images represent more of a physical space or a mental space?
PW: Definitely a mental space. They exist between a real space and something that is imagined. I envision them to be more ephemeral and non-physical even though I use physical objects all the time. But, I want them to transcend their physicality to become something else, something new.
CE: What advice would you give to young artists?
PW: (laughs) I’ve been doing this a long time now–even though I am technically still young. Keep working. Follow their passions. Have faith in what they do. Faith has a lot to do with working. If you think that nobody likes it but you believe so wholeheartedly that it is something meaningful and important then you should follow it. A lot of people will say it is impossible. But, sometimes impossible things are the most exciting things to pursue and imagine.
CE: Do you position art making as a utopian endeavor or a more practical one accessible to a broader community?
PW: One of the goals of my work and with the gallery where I am showing is having that dual criticality and accessibility to the audience. I think it is really important to speak to everybody and be inclusive in a certain sense. I don’t think being inclusive is a utopian idea.
CE: Do you think about how the viewer might respond to your art when you are working in your studio?
PW: I think the most successful artists try to see their work in the third person. As their own viewer. It is not an in-the-moment of making art thing but an after-the-day-is-done exercise. You have to transform yourself into your viewer and try on shoes that may be one size too big. We closed the session with another cricket game. I started to realize how to be more tactical and competitive. Peter still beat me but next time, with practice I could get a better score. Peter’s own philosophy toward the game is as follows: “I like how I am not a master at throwing darts. That mistakes and unexpected occurrences can still happen. That’s where part of the excitement comes from. We can learn from every trajectory. Sometimes you’re on and sometimes you’re off. But, you keep shooting to reach your target. It’s a good analogy for making art and for living.”
You can catch Peter’s upcoming exhibit at Shed No Tears For Broken Nails from October 27 through December 15 at Green Exhibitions. There will be an opening Saturday from 6PM to 9PM. Greene is located on 2654 La Cienega.