Peter Burega is about as warm and congenial and personable and open and informative an artist as you’ll ever come across. Much like his richly inviting abstract landscapes: whether of land or water. Sky or something else entirely. They’re not nature but they’re obviously inspired by nature. Or an amalgamation of what he sees out there in the world. Not so much the manmade world but the world that’s bigger than anything any human might ever construct. Which, if there’s a purpose in his work, might be that: a subtle belief, almost spiritual, definitely sublime, about what’s out there. And how that’s also incorporated into our beingness so that it’s also what’s inside us. Or what should be inside us. Beauty. Awe. Wonderment. Appreciation. And light. Lots of light.
His studio, though, as drenched in light as it is, and one of many studios in the original Santa Fe Prep school compound on Upper Canyon Road, is a mess. Just the way it oughta be. Refreshingly messy. And there’s a constant stream of techno on his iPod-connected speaker (probably Pandora). And his dogs, especially his white lab, are the most affectionate and infectious and reassuring studio companions any artist could ask for. And often covered in paint. Just like their owner.
“I’ve been here in this studio for eight years,” says Burega. “I was in a different one next door for two years.”
There are dozens of photographs—taken by Burega—of beaches and surf and ocean water and shorelines on his walls. Along with a map of Anguilla. “These are photos of the Caribbean, where we went for July and August,” he says, referring to one of the trips he took with his family over the summer. “And of Mexico and Tokyo.”
And there are paintings on the floor, too. They look like his, but they’re not. “Those are my daughter Sofia’s paintings,” says Burega. She’s in school four days a week, but paints with her dad on Mondays. “She’s 11. She frames her paintings. I don’t frame mine. I like the sense of people being able to see the score marks on the sides and bottom and top. I think of that as a framing mechanism.
“Also,’ he adds, “I like people being able to see how many layers there are on the painting—they can see that on the sides. They wouldn’t be able to see that if they were framed. But they get to see that and see how I developed. How the painting developed.”
Sofia’s works, too, are abstract. And layered, just like her father’s. He encourages the layering. He likes the layering. It’s one of the things he’s known for. And perhaps collected for.
“I start very loosely,” he explains. “I’m like one of the Dutch Masters. I start with reds and oranges and bright colors as my underpainting. All the intense colors and lighting and sense of depth. The lighting comes from the underpainting—and from the scraping. I make 20-30 layers, in various colors, and I initially start out in solid colors. But they end up being many colors after several layers.
“At some point, many layers in, I sort of build up a very loose landscape. Then I go solid again. Then I go loose again. Back and forth. When I feel comfortable I build in the final layers and at some point I start to build something. That’s when I start scraping—it lets me layer multiple images on top of each other.
“So it’s a subconscious layering—not an intentional layering. Sometimes it’s massing—an architectural term. Although, that’s not really it, either. It’s a structure. But it’s so loose and abstract. So there’s always that tension back and forth. I do a lot of glazing too.
“I work with Liquin. It’s a glaze developed as a drying agent. If you add it to your oils, it dries in a high-gloss sheen. It’s everywhere, constant. It has an amber quality to it colorwise. I probably use more Liquin than pigment. And I use one house scraper. I’ve had it for 14 years. Sometimes I use a brush. But rarely, at the end, for varnishing.
“This,” he says, taking out a scraper you might find in any hardware store, “is my lucky scraper. There’s something about the way it has a perfect edge on one side. And a chink on the other. If someone took it, it’d be many many months before I could paint again.”
He pauses to answer the phone. A delivery on its way.
“I respond to people who look nothing like me,” he says, when asked about other artists. “Like Cy Twombly. Or, there’s a Spanish artist in Mexico City—Victor Hugo Zayas. Or Reginald Pollack, he was an American who lived and worked in France. He did these bizarre political satires about puppet shows from the 1950s. What I like doesn’t translate into my work. I don’t like figurative work. There’s something weird and spooky about it.
“But my other favorite artist, or artists, would be the Group of Seven,” he adds. “Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, and Frederick Varley. They were Canadian landscape painters. They were the beginning of modern landscapes. They were representational but they weren’t representational. It wasn’t conceptual what they did, either. Or impressionist. It was about the process for them. I guess they’ve always been in the back of my mind when I paint. Maybe partly because I grew up in Montreal, but also because of what they did and how.”
The dogs start barking. Loudly.
“Everyone wants to make something out of the tension they see in my paintings—between chaos and control.”
Maybe, shrugs Burega.
So right now, I feel like I’m painting because I’m just painting. And maybe the travel is subconsciously there and it gets into my work. But I’m just painting and having fun and maybe that’s why they’re selling so well. Because people can feel that energy coming through.”
The fun. The carefree spirit of doing something just because he loves doing it.
“I try not to put a specific spin on my paintings. I want people to see what they want. I only give a place and time as titles to my paintings—that speaks to me. My photography isn’t an inspiration but there are bits and pieces I take from them. When you spend time on some of these islands there are a lot of—they’re these fingers in the water, these peninsulas. So maybe they’re shapes that show up in my work.”
Burega then talks some about his kids, about possibly getting a studio up in Toronto next summer (where he just got a gallery this past summer), about his daughter’s fascination with Minecraft (or, not so much with Minecraft as watching YouTube videos of other kids who commentate on other Minecraft players—kids who are recording themselves playing the video game), about the art business, about music. Then he’s back to his paintings.
“Oil takes so long to dry,” he says. “So my paintings change and evolve after they leave my studio. In this painting, for instance,” he motions, pointing to a large one that he’d just finished, “there’s a very light pink coming through. That’s from 30 layers back! And that’s gonna keep peeking through as the paint dries, as the painting evolves.
“I think that’s why people like my work. Because it changes while it’s there. While it’s in their home. People see new things as they live with it.
There are six different landscape paintings under this top landscape. I don’t think when you first look at it that you go, Oh, now I realize there’s something else there. That realization takes while. Because it’s probably not even there—that red background at the bottom.
“But my process allows for things to change over time,” adds Burega. “Sometimes, I’ll come back in and a painting will have morphed on its own one or two days later. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to let things happen on their own. I’ve stopped trying to make them into something they’re not meant to be. Or something I thought I wanted them to be. I’ve learned to just let them be.”
Read more about Peter Burega’s work in the Oct/Nov 2016 issue of Western Art & Architecture Magazine.