PETER C. KIRBY: THESE PEOPLE
[First published in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island's Arts Atlantic 37, Spring/Summer 1990, 7-8.]
Peter Kirby does not initiate exhibitions of his work, so there have been few solo shows over the years. Although he has been a full-time painter for many years, he is not represented by a dealer, and his work so far has had little exposure. His paintings are small, and not intended specifically for art galleries. They seem more compatible with the cluttered apartments and homes of his sitters, a class of graduate students and others at the sad margins of the academic world. The paintings do not exhibit any of the formal scale, technique or ambition of museum painting. In fact, the art/museum discourse holds little interest for Kirby. He seems to make these gestures of respect as small celebrations of ordinary people. His work exists within the limits of the world of a few friends who pose either in the their homes or in Kirby's studio. The 'discourse' around the work consists almost entirely of the thoughts sitters and friends exchange about the portraits. These works are not commissioned: Kirby asks his subjects to pose without any money exchanging hands - in fact, almost all of the works displayed at Dalhousie are still in the artist's possession.
Kirby's work seems particularly suited to Dalhousie Art Gallery's recently initiated 'Alcove Series', which gives artists the opportunity to show evolving work in an intimate space without the formality and pressure of a full-blown, catalogue-accompanied exhibition.
Kirby is a Newfamerican (I just made up that word): half-Newfoundlander and half Rhode Islander. He paints his friends and relatives - I know most of the people he has painted - Jane, Joe (a former employee of mine and current friend), Marie (the artist's wife), Terry (Graff, a Sackville, New Brunswick artist) Barb (a Sackville curator and artist) Peter (Wardrope, a friend of mine since childhood). I haven't met Peter's parents Fred and Stella or his brother Steven or sister Cynthia, who also figure in these paintings, but they crop up in our conversations often enough that I feel at least some personal connection.
As I define Kirby's work in terms of my relationships to the painter's subjects, am I using the art for the construction of my own public ego, or for confessional reasons ? Perhaps these thoughts shouldn't be the subject of a piece in an art magazine. Why should we talk about our real relationships: for the benefit of outsiders? Lately it has interested me to write about my friends, to try to make clear personal relationships within Atlantic Canada's art world, and to discuss aspects of the viewing and local reception of art.
Kirby's paintings include wide borders which are painted to make visual or anecdotal connections to his sitter's life and interests, and which are surfaces - 'circles' of self-reference in the work. For example, Peter Wardrope, a musician, in addition to being painted in his apartment playing guitar, is surrounded by a border of tennis rackets - tennis is the sitter's other consuming interest. Jane is surrounded by a border of floral patterns similar to the patterns of materials she buys at flea markets.
The border in the painting of Joe is composed of a swirl of photographic bits of his profession of photography. Sections of contact sheets intersect with a painted ladder, suggesting something like a reel of film rolling. A strong shadow cast by Joe on a wall reinforces an idea that the picture develops a sub-theme about photographic or cinematic projection. A private joke informs the placement of the photographs of dogs on the border of the Joe painting.
Some border-elements in the portraits can't be easily deciphered, although we can assume that personal allusions make perfect sense to the sitters.