Small Touching Squares 1998 is a multi-panelled work comprising three sections of joined canvas, each measuring approximately two and a half metres in height, and one and a half metres in width. Produced using acrylic paints and graphite, the large rectangular triptych appears from a distance to be a sea of blurred and mobile coloured lines, traced up and down in sloping diagonals which meet at the joins between the panels. A close examination of the work, however, reveals the enormous and time-consuming task Peter Davies undertook in producing the painting. The three canvases have been painstakingly covered in line after line of small, hand-drawn squares, each filled with colour, which connect at their corners. At the lower right-hand side of the canvas a small number of lines begin to expand and swell, as though the artist’s hand had gone off-kilter, revealing a section of squares in blown-up detail. By incorporating a series of deliberate ‘mistakes’ in the final work Davies seems to reassert the primacy of the artist’s hand in the generation of the pattern, which may, from a distance, register as though it were produced by a computer. This section might read as a ‘signature’ of sorts, as the artist draws the viewer’s attention to the process by which the work was made.
Small Touching Squares was completed two years after Peter Davies graduated with a Masters Degree in Fine Art from Goldsmiths College, London. It is closely related to another painting the artist made in 1998, Small Touching Squares in a Pattern Painting, which brings together four canvases filled with similar hypnotic forms. In these works Davies revisits the modernist trope of the geometric grid to produce a dizzying surface of acid and pastel tones. They also recall the abstract works made by op (or optical) artists such as Bridget Riley in the 1960s. Indeed, in an interview in September 1998, Davies said, ‘if my painting just looked like decorative pattern, that could be interesting for five minutes, but then, who cares? It’s got to look like not just op art, but op art and twenty different other things at the same time’ (Institute of Contemporary Arts 1998, unpaginated).
As well as looking to earlier historical precedents of painterly abstraction, Davies has drawn on sources beyond art for his imagery. The thinly scrawled lines that mark the surface of Small Touching Squares seem to recall the visual and auditory effects of white noise, the ‘fuzz’ or ‘snow’ produced by the static of analogue television sets, or the vivid, dazzling appearance of the television test card. Although each line is hand-made, the overall effect is of lines traced mechanically by the needle of a polygraph or seismometer, or perhaps a series of oversized pixels on a computer screen.
Art historian Stephen Moonie has claimed that Davies’s approach to abstraction, in which modernist reference points combine with his own personal interventions, was ‘in keeping with the wry, irreverent nostalgia of the 1990s, particularly that decade’s pop-cultural retrospection’ (Tate St Ives and Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre 2011, p.60). The wryness Moonie identified can also be seen in the blocks of colourful and tightly-packed text that feature in other paintings by Davies. These works – such as The Hot One Hundred 1997, a large-scale ranking of historic and contemporary artists – provide what art historian Julian Stallabrass has described as a ‘flip and highly abbreviated tour of the art world’ (Julian Stallabrass, High Art Lite: The Rise and Fall of Young British Art, London 2006, p.106).
In 1997 Davies was included in Sensation, an exhibition of Charles Saatchi’s collection of ‘Young British Artists’ at the Royal Academy in London. The artists included in the show were dubbed ‘yBa’s’, and they were noted for their irreverent anti-establishment stance and frequent references to British popular culture. Since then, Davies’s work has continued to engage with the possibilities of abstract painting in a digital age, including the creation in 2009 of two further paintings in the Small Touching Squares series.
Small Touching Squares was displayed along with other recent acquisitions at the Tate Gallery in 1999, and later appeared in the group show titled The Indiscipline of Painting, which began at Tate St Ives in October 2011, before moving to the Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre in 2012.
James Roberts, ‘Be There or Be Square’, Frieze, no.41, June–July 1998, pp.68–9.
Die Young, Stay Pretty, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London 1998.
The Indiscipline of Painting, exhibition catalogue, Tate St Ives and Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, London 2011, p.60, reproduced p.61.
Supported by Christie’s.