A further addition to my run through of the highlights of 2018 in the Northern Highlands, the work of Ullapool-based artist Peter White was the subject of an exhibition at An Talla Solais that made a powerful and, some would say, emotional impact upon its visitors. This review was first published in the Press & Journal with a further review appearing in the Northern Times .
Talking to Peter White, the first impression is of a quietly spoken, gentle and unassuming, man. White is clearly not an ego-driven artist wishing to impose his mark upon the world. Nor is he a man of many words – a personable character who, in art as in life, seems to have developed a sensitive understanding of his place and the need to show respect to others, whether they are living or long-since passed on. It is no surprise that his exhibition is titled Memorial, then – a show that combines large and small-scale work with, most uniquely of all, paintings on stones that he has brought down from the hills in the vicinity of his Ullapool home.
In his larger work, his subject matter tends to follow recurring archetypal themes; objects, such as a book, a building, or the stylised petals of a flower. Asked why he paints them, he is reluctant to give a definitive explanation. “I’m not sure where the images come from,” he says, but clearly they have some personal meaning, however inexpressible it may be in terms of verbalising their source. One thing is clear, though. They are touching in their stillness, allowing us to read into them whatever comes to mind.
It is in his paintings on stones, many small enough to be held in the palm of one’s hand, that the exceptional nature of Peter White's exhibition really comes into its own, however. The stones that he paints on are, in some ways, the key to his art it seems, and the project began with the death of his father in mind. It was on the summit of Cul Beag that Peter scattered his father’s ashes – a hill that his father had previously walked and enjoyed, although not making it to the summit. When walking the hill himself, Peter was to subsequently pick up a stone and return to his studio where he made a painting upon it. “I will return this stone to Cul Beag,” reads an explanatory text on the gallery wall, “and place it on top in memory of my father.”
From here an idea grew, though. Peter White began painting stones in memory of others too. There are now so many that he came up with a fascinating idea. For a small gallery donation, visitors may take a painted memorial stone home, but it is not theirs to keep. At some point they will have to return it, and Peter will replace it in the landscape from which it came. While this might seem odd, the landscape that the artist walks regularly is scattered with the remnants of past lives and, viewed in this way, his work might be seen as a memorial to all those who have become lost to history, too.
When asked about this, the artist speaks of another place he has now walked, about which there is still significant dispute. In Palestine, he has walked many miles, picking up stones and painting his delicate images of personal artefacts upon them. Eventually he will return them. Two of them in particular indicate that Peter White is not an artist with a partisan political agenda, however, and that the exhibition serves as a memorial for all, commemorating the lives of those from quite different moments in history. “One is for Stefania who died in Auschwitz,” for example, and the other “for Mahmoud who died more recently in Gaza.”
While an association with the land and memory runs through the artist’s work, what is also notable is the immense care that he has taken with the way it is displayed. For the exhibition he has personally transformed the gallery with the help of a small team, and the display of his work is not just beautifully done, but of museum quality – something rare for a regional gallery and a credit to Peter White. But then again, why wouldn’t he take so much care in the presentation of his work? With material that is so personal and intended as a memorial, it certainly requires a very special kind of care, much as we would offer a loved one.
There is also a grittier edge to the exhibition too, though, and one that should not go without mention here – a space set aside for a wall of meticulously drawn faces, each resembling an ID photograph. As White explains, he does not know the people depicted, for each image is transcribed from anonymous photographs of people from different moments in history also: some from photographs of those once held at Lubyanka Prison, Moscow, and others from the 1970s Cambodian genocide or, further back in history, from the Holocaust, again.
Despite the subject matter here, there is no overt political message that the artist forces upon visitors – it is very much an installation that 'shows' rather than 'tells', and again it has been put together in what is a notably subtle way, offering an opportunity for us to reflect quietly upon the lives of those depicted. Even the medium of graphite pencil that the artist uses works in an unexpected way here – the shaded portraits reflect back the light of the gallery and so, as we move past them, the detail of each of the faces looking out from the wall gives way to the glare of the lights, as if each one comes and goes like a ghost from the past (which in most cases they might be seen to represent).
Living as we do in an era of ever-more graphic representations of atrocities and the clamour for our attention using the most sensationalist and shocking of images to pull us in, Peter White has found a far more respectful means to now memorialise those lost to history, and this too, in my opinion, is very much to his credit.