An Interview with Artist Gary Petersen

April, 2010

Gary Petersen was born in Staten Island, New York. He received a BS from Penn State University, University Park, PA, and an MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Petersen has been exhibiting his paintings and drawings since 1992 both in New York and throughout the US. His work may be found in numerous private, corporate and public collections, including in New Jersey: the Jersey City Museum, Jersey City; the Hunterdon Museum, Clinton; the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum of Rutgers University, New Brunswick; the Morris Museum, Morristown; and the Trenton Museum, Trenton. Petersen is one of 14 artists awarded a free studio space at The Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation Space Program at their Brooklyn location for 2010-2011. The artist lives in New Jersey and works in New York City.

Julie Karabenick: You’ve said that you’ve always been interested in geometric abstraction that reflects our human vulnerability and uncertainty.

Now What
Now What, acrylic on panel, 51 x 41 cm (20 x 16 in), 2009

Gary Petersen: I respond to art that has some sense of the person in it. What makes humans interesting are our mistakes, our attempts at a good life, but never quite getting there. I try to use geometric abstraction to this end. I hope that my work can, at times, add something to what it means to be human in this world.

Misfit, acrylic and oil on wood panel,
51 x 41 cm (20 x 16 in), 2009

JK: How do you express this vulnerability visually?

GP: There are contemporary artists who use geometry to remove the hand, the person, the human touch; to reflect utopian ideals, purity, and formal concerns. It’s important in my work that the hand is evident, that my paintings are not perfect. I don’t wish to replicate graphic design, and I don’t strive for a clean, machine-made surface.

Untitled 2010
Untitled, acrylic on wood panel,
51 x 41 cm (20 x 16 in), 2010

When you look closely at my works on canvas, for example, you can see the evidence of paint handling, not so perfect edges and colors that may seem a little odd. The lines may be a little wobbly, the spacing may be off and, because they are oil, the surfaces may be a little uneven. Also, there is less order, less symmetry, I think, in my work. Rather than reflecting some perfect ideal, it shows that things are always unraveling—no matter how hard we try to stop this.

Together, oil on canvas,
142 x 102
cm (56 x 40 in), 2009

What I’m really talking about is a bit of poetry in the work. I get excited when I see art that’s a little off—maybe in color or composition. But I’m also not using gestural strokes, drips or washy paint. I’m still interested in crisp lines and geometric forms, but I use these to reflect the uncertainty in the world and in our lives.

JK: We get a sense of searching, wondering or even groping from many of your titles—Misfit, Now What, Point the Way, Some Day, To Begin Again.

GP:Seems to be true—I guess there is an attempt at trying to make sense of the world, but never really getting it.

JK: What’s your particular interest in past abstraction?

GP: I’ve always been interested in the “cosmic” in past modes of abstraction. I got interested in looking at the work of artists like Emma Kunz or Hilma Klint and in that time period when artists were interested in Theosophy. They tried to delve below the surface of the real, asking, “What’s behind the veil?” and attempting to realize on canvas the invisible “vibrations” of the human spirit.

Untitled 2007
Untitled, acrylic on panel, 56 x 46 cm (22 x 18 in), 2007

I don’t take this attempt seriously, but look at it with a sense of amusement and humor. I play around with abstraction and formalism and indirectly reference this interest in the cosmic with my own “cosmic” rays or vectors, which may suggest portals or openings into other worlds. In this way, my paintings may act as a bridge between the real and the imagined.

Point the Way
Point the Way, acrylic on wood panel,
46 x 36 cm (18 x 14 i
n), 2009

I try to merge my interest in early 20th century abstraction with a California or Pop sensibility.

JK: How do you feel you inject a Pop sensibility?

GP: The Pop culture comes in with a kind of cartoon bang or zip as well as with color.

Within, oil on canvas, 81 x 132 cm (32 x 52 in), 2009

JK: What sort of bang or zip?

GP: Well, like the old Batman comics—when the villain gets hit and smash!—those zippy lines are used to show the power of the punch. I like the added reference to those cartoons and comics.

Smashed, oil on canvas,
142 x 102 cm (56 x 40 in), 2007

Color is very important in my work. It allows my somewhat familiar forms to become highly personal and subtly eccentric. I like pinks, oranges, citrus greens, flesh colors, colors that might reflect the artificial in our world—video games, cartoons, advertisements. I pull colors from the everyday—ice pops, Pepto-Bismol, anti-freeze. I guess my flavor would be creamsicle. I don’t stay true to these colors, but take them as a starting point.

Untitled (Yellow)
Untitled (Yellow), acrylic on panel,
46 x 36 cm (18 x 14 in), 2007

In graduate school a teacher told me to take a course in color theory to help me with color. I never did. I preferred to develop my own sensibility. I think I made the right choice.

JK: As we can see in the paintings above and below, you use a lot of line in your work.

GP: I’ve always been interested in line—how it contains, defines and suggests.

Which Way
Which Way, oil on canvas,
142 x 102 cm (56 x 40 in),

When I was a kid, I loved the book, Harold and the Purple Crayon. It kinda says it all for me—how it all starts with a line. From there, anything can be made.

Untitled 2010
Untitled, gouache on paper,
38 x 28 cm (15 x 11 in), 2010

Lines are boundaries, edges of things, places where something stops being one thing and becomes another. I respond to line—to its elegance, its movement.

I also like opposites coexisting in my work—in this case, both expansiveness, and yet there are boundaries. What seems limitless has limits.

Open Up
Open Up, acrylic and oil on wood panel,
76 x 61 cm (30 x 24 in), 2009

JK: You sometimes use lines or bars of color to set off or contain the focal area.

GP: Yes. The yellow “frame” in Untitled (Split) is the underpainting color I began with, so here the frame is actually below the enclosed action.

Untitled (Split)
Untitled (Split), acrylic on panel,
51 x 41 cm (20 x 16 in), 2007

I enjoy using framing elements in my work, playing with the conventions of painting and its supports. I also like the idea of establishing boundaries and then playing against them.

Tipping Point
Tipping Pointacrylic and colored pencil on panel,
46 x 36 cm (18 x 14 in), 2008

JK: You typically work at different scales—drawings or small paintings on panels as well as large works on canvas.

GP: The works on panel are small, but feel expansive. I love that as a kid looking at picture books, you just entered that space you held between your hands. I also enjoy making larger work where you can have more of a physical reaction to it.

JK: You do a lot of drawing, often combining paint with graphite or colored pencil.

GP: I love drawing. I guess most artists do. Drawings always feel more intimate to me, more personal. I feel you can get a better understanding of an artist and how they think through drawings—like reading their thoughts.

I like blacks and greys, like it when artists can make them work. The images below are from my MM series. This series on paper let me take a break from color. It also allowed the underlying structure to come through, so layering became important, and I used it in my panel paintings.

MM series
Works from the MM series, acrylic, colored pencil and graphite
on paper, 
each 28 x 19 cm (11 x 7.5), 2008

One always turns to drawings when you need to refresh. Things move faster with drawings, and I find small works allow me to get ideas out quickly.

JK: And some of your drawings, like After-Thought, below, are fairly large.

GP: Yes. My drawings influence my paintings, but my paintings also influence my drawings.

After-Thought, acrylic and colored pencil on paper,
97 x 127 cm (38 x 50 in), 2007

Drawings seem less of a product than paintings, so I do feel more free on paper. I feel drawings are like thoughts abstracted or sketches from a naturalist’s journal, where nature for me is my mind space.

  G-2  G-26
G-2, gouache on paper,
28 x 19 cm (11 x 7.5 in), 2008
G-26, gouache on paper,
28 x 19 cm (11 x 7.5 in), 2008

JK: Were you interested in art when you were growing up?

GP: Yes, but I went to a Catholic school where we didn’t have studio art. I was always interested in art, had some books about painting and did art at home, but I was also good at science and math. Art was never presented to me as an option to study at college. My parents didn’t attend college, and they felt I should pursue a career. I loved the outdoors, animals, nature, and became interested in veterinary medicine while working as a summer camp counselor during my high school years. I attended Penn State and studied Animal Science, a pre-vet program.

It wasn’t until my junior year that I could finally take an elective or two, so naturally I took a basic studio art course. I began to hang out with some graduate students in art and read art magazines. I was drifting away from my original interest in vet medicine and decided I really wanted to become an artist. Finishing my degree, I returned to New York City to become just that. But I had no idea how to do this. I began taking art classes at night at the School of Visual Arts and worked in a hospital research lab to support myself. Five years later, I was accepted to graduate school at the School of Visual Arts.

JK: Looking at some of your work from the early 90s, it seems we can see the influence of your interest in nature and biology.

GP: At this time, I was into singular forms—by themselves, bumping along in life and trying to figure it all out. These images are circus-like, but also kind of biological—bumps, limb buds, growths, but in a more artificial or Pop sort of way. I wanted humor, playfulness and my world of Saturday morning cartoons.

  Stretch  Empty Head
Stretch, oil on canvas,
203 x 61 cm (80 x 24 in),
Empty Headoil on
canvas, 244 x 66 cm
(96 x 26 in), 1991

These works were also about line—elongated, loopy, suggestive—lines with an organic feel to them. I always liked Elizabeth Murray’s very early work, the way a line just looped around a canvas and ended with a “period.”

Over time, the images became more humanoid. I started to play with the human form—sexy and cartoony, but not as aggressive in nature as, say, Philip Guston. More like Ellsworth Kelly meets Bart Simpson. I wanted the supports to have a physical relationship to the body, the width somewhat mimicking one’s shoulder width and the height like a tall figurative statue. I also wanted my paintings to be more active in the space rather then windows on the world.

Untitled 1998
Untitledoil on canvas,
239 x 46 cm (94 x 18 in),

JK: Soon you were working on shaped canvases.

GP: Yes, I wanted the paintings to engage the space, but still be paintings. I didn’t want them to drift into being painted sculptures. I also felt that the viewer should have a visceral response to the work, hence the idea of the shaped work.

  Are We  Rupture
Are We, oil on canvas,
246 x 48 cm (97 x 19 in), 1999
Rupture, oil on canvas,
249 x 33 cm (98 x 13 in), 1999

I reached a limit with what I could do with the shaped canvas. Weightless was a transition piece for me, a first step into other work. I liked its frontality. I’d always liked an up-front, in your face frontality. Maybe it was all those years in Catholic school, the nuns in their habits, seemingly without bodies and in your face!

Weightless, oil on canvas,
198 x 122 cm (78 x 48 in), 2001

At the time I was working a lot with this sort of imagery on paper and small panels—single images with scalloped borders with floating ovals inside. In Weightless the lower left edge of the central image almost touches the edge of the canvas—like it’s sticking a toe in the water.

JK: Again an allusion to the figure.

GP: Yes. There’s a certain tension I like in my work that comes from flirting with representation—creating things that could exist, but don’t. I was still interested in line—how it implies shape and can contains things. These works can also be read as a kind of zooming in on a specimen under a microscope.

Holiday, oil on canvas, 163 x 218 cm (64 x 86 in), 2002

These paintings also had a micro/macro feel to them—like circus tents, which is all about one world existing within another. Or perhaps walling off something that’s about to spread—like the body walling off an infection. But I’m into bright, artificial colors, so the more organic nature of the image is presented in bright, cartoony colors. I’ve always been interested in where the organic and artificial meet and possibly merge.

Slipping into It
Slipping into It, oil on canvas, 122 x 198 cm (48 x 78 in), 2001

JK: You continued with scalloped-edged, singular images in the work that followed.

GP: Stripes started taking over the inside of these forms. I liked the play of the organic and geometric. And I like to go back and forth between forms that sit on the ground and those suspended above it.

  Untitled 2004  Untitled 2004
Untitled (Outsidein #1), acrylic and spray paint on paper,
58 x 76 cm ( 23 x 30 in), 2004
Untitled (Outsidein #3), acrylic and spray paint on paper,
58 x 76 cm ( 23 x 30 in), 2004

JK: Again, these ambiguous “presences.”

GP: I like the ambiguity. The images aren’t anything but shapes, solitary shapes, more humanoid than landscape, but at times like a UFO landing right in front of you. And the open holes might suggest eyes, mouths, or just passages through the shapes. They allow the shapes to connect to the backgrounds as your eye travels through them and beyond.

  Floppy  Strungout
Floppy, acrylic on wood panel,
41 x 51 cm (16 x 20 in), 2004
Strungout, acrylic on wood panel,
71 x 97 cm (28 x 38 in), 2005

There is a bit of sci-fi influence in my work as well. Can’t help it since I grew up in the 60s when TV shows like The Outer Limits and Star Trek were on. And there’s my interest in how geometric forms have been used in the past to express cosmic concerns.

  Accelerator  Interstellar Drive
Accelerator, oil on canvas,
198 x 122 cm (78 x 48 in), 2004
Interstellar Overdrive, oil on canvas,
137 x 127 cm (54 x 50 in), 2005

JK: Allusions to the human figure continued in these very tall paintings.

GP: Colossal Youth feels a bit like a draped statue—a colossal figure just there, presenting itself or waiting for you. With Portrait, it feels like a large head with an eye. It just referenced the idea of portraiture for me, hence the title.

  Colossal Youth  Portrait
Colossal Youthoil on canvas,
203 x 102 cm (80 x 40 in), 2005
Portrait, oil on canvas,
198 x 122 cm (78 x 48 in), 2006

JK: Increasingly diagonals were entering your workas well as lines.

Untitled 3-06
Untitled 3-06, acrylic on paper, 57 x 76 cm (22.5 x 30 in), 2006

GP: Wedges and vectors are so spatial—I think that’s why I gravitated to them. I was exploring space, moving away from the more frontal work. And I began using straight lines as well, indicating direction, motion, energy.

JK: The diagonals and lines do impart a lot of energy to your work.

Horizon, acrylic and oil on wood panel,
51 x 41 cm (20 x 16 in), 2009

GP: In Horizon, I like the way the thicker lines bounce around and reinforce or struggle against the edges of the painting, how things are breaking apart or maybe struggling to fit together. The black and blue sections are like doors opening up, and you view this space with lines zipping around in it.

I work intuitively. I enjoy playing with and thinking about abstraction. I like the way things shift and move, seem always in flux—the way nature is—like a snapshot of some unknown reaction

Someday, acrylic and colored pencil on panel,
46 x 36 cm (18 x 14 in), 2008

To Begin Again uses line to create this box-like form. Not sure how I got onto this—I started to play with all these lines zipping around, and then they started to take off in other work.


To Begin Again
To Begin Again, acrylic on panel,
51 x 41 cm (20 x 16 in), 2009

JK: Your attraction to working with oppositions or dualities is interesting—representation versus abstraction, the artificial or synthetic versus the natural or organic, flatness versus depth, solidity versus weightlessness, expanding versus contained, and so on.

artist studio
A view of the artist’s studio

GP: This isn’t something I set out to do, but it connects to my sense of the universe. It stays true to myself and to my views of the world. I’ve always been interested in the point where things meet or briefly intersect—like daybreak or twilight. Or maybe I just don’t believe in any one thing.

Gary Petersen
Artist Gary Petersen
(photo: Meredith Allen)


More information about the artist at

Interview images and text copyright © 2010 Julie Karabenick & Gary Petersen All Rights Reserved.

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