A Conversation with Canadian Painter Joseph Peller, at Home in New York
Born in Toronto and raised in the nearby steel town of Hamilton, Joseph Peller had little formal education in painting. Instead, he learned to paint primarily through an affiliation with other artists, particularly the Canadian painter A. K. Scott. Through Scott, who proved to be a mentor and lifelong friend, Peller traces his painterly influences back to the expressive but representational Ashcan school as well as George Bellows and Charles Hawthorne. Like them, Peller paints what he sees, almost always from life, in scenes pulsating with urban energy.
Scott was also the catalyst behind Peller’s relocation to New York City, when he left behind Ontario and his steel town roots. The friends came to study with the painter Thomas Fogarty at the Art Students League of New York. Peller never intended to stay, but for a painter of urban life like him, the excitement of New York City produced a gravity that has kept him here.
Over the years, he moved through the city from studio to studio, painting industrial subjects alongside warmer depictions of city life. “I suspect that’s where I got my interest…in the industrial subject matter that I still create,” he says of his early life in Hamilton. We recently talked with Peller about his move from Canada to New York, his fondness for picture-in-picture relationships, and seeing the city change as an expat artist.
Artsy: You had an unusual painting education, learning through affiliation with other painters. What were their studios like?
Joseph Peller: [A. K.] Scott’s place in Hamilton was a rundown old conservatory building. His friend Mr. Horn had a much more, if you like, elaborate studio. He was a figure and portrait painter. He had a beautiful northern skylight. In New York, Mr. Fogarty had one of the old studios over the old Carnegie Hall. He had a fabulous view of the city and a fabulous north-light view in a small little room. He had his easel setup up there.
Artsy: You came to New York City in 1984—what drew you to it?
JP: Ultimately my interest in studying at the Art Students League, which A. K. Scott suggested. Originally when I came here, my intention wasn’t to stay, but I fell in love with the city. Because of my small studio in Toronto, I was working on small ideas—vignettes of the garment district where I had my studio, and so on. When I came here, I thought, “My god! This place is just a world apart.” It’s sort of the quintessential metropolis, and for a person who sees the human condition through the urban experience, it was meant to be. I didn’t intend to stay, but I decided to stay.
Artsy: Where in the city did you first land?
JP: I stayed at the Vanderbilt YMCA by the UN. Then I moved to Jackson Heights in Queens, and set up a small studio there. It was rough. In 1990, I moved to Williamsburg, which was very unfashionable at the time. The rent was going up, and the compelling reason to move there was I needed to save some money. I found a wonderful studio near the East River in Williamsburg, overlooking the river and the city. It was a marvelous space on the fifth floor—85 North 3rd Street. The studio experience is long gone. I pushed out of there again, then ended up here in the Navy Yard, where I’ve had my studio for the last 10 years.
Artsy: How did you land in the Navy Yard?
JP: Quite by accident, actually. I knew I was running out of time at my old space in Williamsburg. It was just getting untenable. They were doing all sorts of construction and it was getting impossible to do any work in my old space. A colleague of mine recommended the Navy Yard. I came down and when I saw the old dockyard and the area around it, I just fell in love. I said, “This is a place I have got to be.”
The space is good. I have two suites: a larger suite and a smaller suite. The larger suite I use for sculpture and printmaking; the other suite I use for painting. It has a view of the city, which I love, and a view of docks, where I often go down to paint.
Artsy: When you paint, are you painting from life?
JP: In all these situations, my point of departure is always from direct observation. The two Navy Yard works were actually done on site, even though they are quite large works. I often start with small drawings and notebook studies, oil sketches. The security guards have come to know me, so it’s easier here. But it’s places like Grand Central—where my attitude is: If it’s on the planet, it’s fair game to paint—that not everyone tends to agree.
Artsy: A few of your paintings seem to be explicitly referencing other paintings.
JP: That’s a theme I like to treat a lot. I find it intriguing to see the picture-in-picture relationship. It sort of opens up a window.
Artsy: Can you tell me about this monochromatic etching of a woman standing by a Gustave Courbet painting?
JP: It started as an idea for a painting. The model [Joanna] who was posing for it at the time had to leave city, and I lost touch with her. I kept the study drawing. I had already done several studies of that gallery at the Met with multiple figure ideas in mind, but when I saw a young woman standing in front of Courbet’s Young Woman with a Parrot as I was doing these studies, I thought, “I can use Joanna’s figure!” That’s how things develop with me. They start with, say, a painting, and switch to the discipline of printmaking or sculpture, and switch back.
Artsy: Many of your paintings are done using oil on linen. What do you enjoy about painting with that combination?
JP: Linen has a fine texture, and it’s usually oil primed, which I prefer because it allows the paint to move on the canvas more freely. The primings on linen are better; they are much more permanent than cotton, technically speaking. But it’s the surface feel that I like. It has a lovely play to it, and it allows me to do everything from very heavy impasto painting to very scraped-back painting with a palette knife. The linen is really responsive that way, which I like, especially on an oil ground, because I work very large. You really need something strong like linen to do that, as well as a responsive surface. It’s got to have the strength to hold, because it’s prettying punishing work when I go after a painting. The surface takes a real beating.