“It’s a bit like a sketch of someone trying to ask for something in a plumber’s merchant but they don’t know the name of it, and the plumber’s merchant is gently ridiculing them for not having the right language.” Mick Peter is speaking over the phone from his home in Dennistoun, the muffled hoots of children audible in the background. I’ve suggested that his practice expresses an unusual degree of solidarity with that sense of confusion, even mild scorn, which a large portion of the public feels on encountering contemporary art. The analogy he chooses to describe his own work suggests he’s more interested in narrating the encounter than taking sides, but the stolidly non-artistic reference point tells its own story. Threaded throughout Peter’s practice is a desire to remove the aura of difficulty or rarefication that pervades the gallery space; the aim is not to denigrate contemporary art but to pose questions about its function, its relationship to society and economics, in a way that feel open and democratic.
Only in the last few years has Peter’s practice taken on the decidedly other-than-fine-art qualities that have allowed him to pursue these themes. And those aspects of his work remain in dialogue with the formal concerns that have motivated it over a longer period: how to make a sculpture look like a drawing of a three-dimensional object; how to create sensory confusion about the physical nature of a thing by using multiple layers of reproduction, encoding, scaling up, and medium-shifting. But from around the time of his 2015 Tramway show Pyramid Selling you sense the emergence of a more immediately distinctive practice, very much reliant on the flattened perspectives, linear narrative sequences, and time-bound gags of the newspaper cartoonist. Adopting this comic, story-telling style has allowed Peter to offer comically-veiled social commentaries on the contemporary artworld.
His 2019 Baltic show To Me To You was a case in point, a series of interior rooms, housed in turn by the gallery walls – like a kids’ den in a bedroom – populated by a motley group of characters including a scraggly-bearded artist and two movers, who realise that they can’t transport their Hepworth-esque sculpture to their gallery space unless they chip another hole in it for a handle. (One of the things Peter is interested in is “how many of an artist’s concerns are totally practical: how’s it going to stand up, how is it going to survive the weather….”) A large mural covered the wall behind, showing a derelict high street. The installation offered a cutely-packaged critical sociology of the 21st century British art-scene, picking apart its queasy relationships with issues like industrial decline, the hollowing out of city centres, and cosmetic regeneration projects that feel more like gentrification.
The cartoon-strip style also offers a language for these messages which doesn’t demand any dense art-historical knowledge. “That readymade visual language: everyone understands it, everyone knows where it comes from and how those stories unfold.” Removing the aura of “preciousness” from the artwork is another benefit of mimicking a medium associated with throwaway value: “if you make the sculpture look like it’s not made of something incredibly expensive, that really helps. Because in the back of everyone’s mind in a gallery is that fear of tripping over something or breaking something that you could never afford to own” (a theme tackled in the aptly titled Breaking News, exhibited in Brussels in 2018).
The main reason we’re talking is that Peter has recently secured a commission as part of the 2021 artists’ programme at Hospitalfield in Arbroath: a sequence of outdoor sculptures will be unveiled in a newly renovated garden space also including a “glass-house café.” Given the commercial backdrop to the project, can we expect more of the same ribbing? “It’s going to be in that ballpark,” Peter says, referring back to his recent shows: “taking on the mis-en-scène potential of the pieces, so you’re not only showing sculpture about sculpture, but you’re also showing interactions with artworks.” The title, Gerroff! (or User Feedback), gives a hint as to what those interactions might entail: “there are drawings of people and sculpture but there are curious interactions going on between them. They’re wrong, in inverted commas: people are doing things to the sculptures that don’t give them due reverence.” Some of the interlopers in the scenes will include an old woman with a probing stick and an “errant dog” poised to relieve himself.
What these interventions tell us about nature of the contemporary artist’s interaction with the public will become clearer on opening day. But Peter has previously found that working in a light-seeming medium has allowed him to disguise quite trenchant comments on the realpolitik of the commission in question. He recalls the 80-metre-long installation he constructed for Glasgow International in 2018, a project offered by the multi-council regeneration scheme Clyde Gateway. Fronting a disused gas purifier shed behind Dalmarnock train station, The Regenerators played on the promises and pitfalls of regeneration, in particular the failure of the promised rejuvenation of Glasgow’s east end following the 2014 Commonwealth Games. “When we were explaining the project verbally to the parties involved in regenerating the area, they were getting really uncomfortable, but when you give them a mock-up of what you’re going to do they go ‘oh that’s fine’.” Cartoons can’t be that dangerous.
These issues aside, the impetus of Peter’s compositional process, he says, doesn’t lead him away from fine art. It’s more about maintaining a “balance”, satirising the inherent “ludicrousness of making and showing sculptures” while also offering those moments of estrangement, “weirdness,” which give audiences pause for thought, and which only art can offer. “You want to be able to communicate to people, but there should also be something in the work which makes them walk away thinking…oh yeah, I hadn’t thought about that.”
Hospitalfield’s spring programme will launch with a new work by Mick Peter opening in Spring 2021.