A Creature of Postmodernism - Peter Combe in an Exclusive Interview

May 17, 2016

The Post-Internet era is made up of many different parts, and although they exist independently, they are also connected to each other. As the world is getting older, we are surrounded by much more than what we used to perceive years or decades earlier. We are constantly informed by new things, meaning that we can use them directly, but we are also able to relate them to our previous knowledge and to make new relations between the old and the new, the new and the new-er. This implicit principle could be a guideline to the art of Peter Combe, the new guest of our interview section.

Peter Combe is a visual artist based in San Francisco, whose approach to art provides a clear demonstration of these relations. Although he uses the term "impression" to describe the essential properties of his artworks, he says that he wouldn't "call himself an Impressionist", as much as he doubts that "Warhol would call himself a Fauvist"The reference to Warhol may have been a bit offhand, but it is definitely on point, given that Combe's art is an offspring of the Postmodern era. So what happens when an artist is part of a generation heavily influenced by Postmodernism, but working as a visual artist in an age shaped by the Internet? Combe's relationship with Postmodernism does not rely on some retrospective fascination - it is inherited from his own experience, having spent his formative years surrounded by the echo of the era.

Unique Process of Art-Making


Making connections between things that originate in different epochs is nothing really new. However, as much as we are used to seeing today's artists build their style with regards to the past, it usually happens that the reference is made to a very distant past. Peter Combe's artworks, on the other hand, reflect on a period which happened not so long ago - if it's correct to render Postmodernism as a period rather than a style. Since the most renowned works from Combe's oeuvre rely on a particular kind of appropriation, it could be said that this appropriation has been "appropriated", taken from the legacy of Postmodernism (and then again, appropriation was not invented by Postmodernism either): "During my impressionable years, the movement was flourishing in real time. I am a creature of that era - without sounding lofty, I am authentic in that capacity so to speak. It’s interesting how that movement is being revisited in the fields of art and design today. Artists are inspired by their surroundings - today we live in an information glut, constantly inundated with visual imagery - I like to pull from some of that glut and present the subject in a new way. In a sense it’s a form collage."

Peter Combe interview
Peter Combe - Stripes (detail)

Household Paint Swatches as a Useful Tool for Art-Making

Peter Combe makes images - portraits and abstract pictures - out of paint swatches, which he transforms into small discs.  "I’ve collected paint chips for as long as I can remember", he says. "I’ve always liked the idea of the ready-made. I received an envelope in the mail. Its interior was lined with a ‘scalloped' security pattern rather like fish scales. It struck me that perhaps I cold duplicate this pattern in a 3 dimensional format. It was my eureka moment. I was absolutely enthralled by the effect. Excited and absorbed by the magical effect - caused by something so terribly simple. I began producing abstract works, geometric mathematical inspired works and more organic colorfield artworks that flowed from one color seamlessly into another. I’d wanted to transfer this medium to photo representative work. Incubating the idea for a number of years, I tried to formulate a way in which to make it possible. I wanted to produce stuff that was for the most part seamless, subtle, and elegant."

However, as much as these images tend to present themselves as a unique type of fascination for the eye, Combe believes that it is not just the visual effect that makes them captivating. "The optical effect is very important, however I don’t want it ever to be solely about the effect. The imagery has to be equally captivating. There is a fine line between novelty and something deeper. I would hope that my work presents itself as being many layered. Besides appropriating images that I am interested in, I’ll also approach a possible subject." This means that the portraits are visually attractive, as much as they ought to be challenging, on a sensual level.

Peter Combe interview
Peter Combe - Cory Bond

Technical Matter

There was one more thing that we found to be quite interesting, and it was the fact that all of the discs are oriented to the right. But this was easily demystified by a very simple answer - Peter Combe is right-handed: "I was commissioned to do a large piece last year in which the client wanted the discs to project in the opposite direction - due to the artwork’s proposed location. This meant I had to work on the piece upside down, constantly photographing the piece and flipping the photos to view for errors. The colour sides of the chips face away from the viewer enabling a subtle trick of the eye. The effect caused through the reversal of the chips prompts the viewer to discover the artwork. Light plays an important role, the reflected colour fills each channel with colored light. When lit well, I've often been asked if there are tiny LED's imbedded within the work. Walking by the work, colors appear and disappear. There is a kinetic element to the art, though it is the movement of the viewer that creates the optical effect."

And in case you were wondering what happens to the remaining parts of the samples - they get tossed. "Space is at a premium in San Francisco."

Nothing is Concrete - Everything is an Impression

Combe also uses shredded fragments to make his artworks, and lately he has been exploring plastics - vinyl, acetate and polyester. He feels that his art is going to gradually move towards the use of these materials, which will possibly add a new flare to the work. "It is strange - after experimenting I am struck by how the works, though 3D, can at certain angles present themselves as being 2D. These differing materials pose a strange phenomena - I am often perplexed while working as certain discs appear to be in the foreground while others appear to be further away. It is, however, an illusion as they all project from the same plane."

Peter Combe interview
Peter Combe - Pete (de Vooght)

Combe has noticed that while "viewing the finished artworks from certain angles and due to the opacity of some discs and the translucency and transparency of others, one is hit with a sudden recognition that the works become a sort of meta 3D". Admitting to be a "sucker for illusion", Combe must be constantly driven by these observations, based on his own creation. Ultimately, this illusion comes down to myriad impressions, which is perhaps why he mentions Camille Pissarro, the French Impressionist, to describe aspects of his work. So although he doesn't refer to himself as an Impressionist, he is aware that his works present themselves as an impression: "They change as the viewer passes - nothing is concrete in that sense. From the left the works are very pale, beyond halftone. They become ghostly - apparitions so-to-speak. The interplay of color and light is the desired outcome and is what drives my practice. At early evening, the gloaming (Zwielicht or crepuscule), the natural phenomenon produces the most incredible effect. The colors appear to come alive - a progression that is very subtle yet definite. Colors that reflect between the discs appear with intensity like glowing jewels. "

Inspired by the Post-Internet Era

Finally, you must have noticed how Peter Combe's analog arrangements have many similarities with the digitally-formed imagery. But how much of the aesthetics stems from the Internet itself? "As artists, we are inspired by our surroundings. With the Internet we are surrounded by a constant bombardment of visual imagery. I like to draw from that." Since Combe's artistic sensibility has been shaped by Postmodernism and its methods of appropriation, it is natural that this reference to the Internet comes in a physical form. Besides, Combe humorously describes himself as a bit of a "tech dinosaur", who is "too OCD to grasp Photoshop". On his attitude towards digital art, he says that he does a little here and there, although he'd never "commit entirely as there is no tactile element involved in the process".

In the end, we asked Peter about his plans for the future.

"Working towards to engineering larger works. At present though, I must get beyond prepping for Robert Fontaine Gallery’s requests for Scope at Art Basel, Switzerland in June and my solo show at Andrea Schwartz Gallery, San Francisco, also in June through July. Then I hope to fly off to Milan to scope materials. Maybe get a chance to check out some Enrico Castellani work then visit Fondazione Achille Castiglioni while I’m there."

All images courtesy of Peter Combe.

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