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peteris ciemitis: parallels in portraiture,
urban design and music
Max Noakes | commissioned in 2009 for Art Monthly Australia

For thirty years, Peteris Ciemitis has worked as an urban designer. In short, he designs space, applying a set of technical and artistic principles to map the layouts of West Australian locations such as Woodvale Waters and various villages in Ellenbrook. His latest long-term project is the designing of Vasse Newtown— a town just shy of Busselton— that when finished will be roughly the size of Margaret River and the only one in the state based on boulevards and squares. Chat with Ciemitis and you realise how close the project is to his heart. His description of the area as ‘having an almost classical feel and grandeur to it’ despite the austerity of the site, and his desire to ‘really focus on the beauty of the place’ are the tell-tale signs of artistic thought – the common thread between his dual life as both urban designer and portraitist. That thread appears even stronger once you consider how Ciemitis’s approach to art seems to have been influenced (at least partially) by the visual elements of his career.

‘I guess there’s a degree of training in the urban design field that gives you an understanding of form; particularly land form,’ he says. ‘Very few people are able to visualise an area in all of its hills and valleys just by looking at a pattern or line from a contour map. As a portraitist, I’m fascinated by what you could regard as ‘organic form’. The face is absolutely fascinating in terms of landscape in that the shapes within it are so infinitely variable.’

Trained at the Claremont School of Art, Ciemitis has exhibited since 1992, garnering considerable recognition in recent years with extensive awards, commissions and portraiture prizes (in particular, as a finalist in the insert year here*** Prospect Portrait Prize and winner of the 2009 Black Swan/Rapids Landing Portraiture Prize).

However, it was 2007 that big things began heating up, with Ciemitis being short-listed for the Archibald Portrait Prize. At a glance, the piece that got him there— a watercolour of academic, George Seddon, Making Sense of Place #—bares slight resemblances to a map and drags Peteris’s perception that the body is a kind of organic landscape into more literal light. The work crawls with longitudinal lines that intersect with loose, tremulous horizontals. The combination softens the sitter’s face, which simultaneously sears beneath bright ochre shading and daydreams beneath splotches of magenta shadow. The colours seem to reveal a man both present and absent in time while the centrepiece of the work is a pair of pale blue eyes staring distantly as if reaching an epiphany.

For Ciemitis, portraiture is all about physical form and his emotional responses to the sitter. Often, he riddles his works with ectoplasmic markings that hover over the foundations of the subject’s skin. Many of these aren’t true-to-life renderings but signifying emotional tags shaped by both Peteris’s interpretation of the sitter and his tendency to avoid creating a duplicate image of them on canvas. Much of that interpretation comes from conversations with his subjects pre-painting, allowing him a glimpse into their personal lives before he sets to work. The sitting on the other hand is a quieter and more intense process, the artist suggests. ‘In fact, sometimes after you’ve finished because you’ve been quiet for the last couple of hours there’s almost a sense of distance that’s been developed unintentionally between you both.’

After being short-listed for the 2007 Archibald, it was obviously a validating moment when the artist was announced as a finalist in 2008 as well. His portrait, Grabowksy, featuring Paul Grabowsky, director of the Australian Art Orchestra, was described by Dr Chris McAullife of ABC’s Sunday Art program as one that ‘speaks to…the intense focus that drives creativity’.

The portrait would later join eleven others as part of the artist’s third solo exhibition, Indigo at Gadfly Gallery in Perth. The collection, featuring some of Australia’s finest jazz and blues talent, (including saxophonist Troy Roberts and blues guitarists Matt Taylor and Dave Hole) was partially an effort to promote cross-pollination in the arts.

However, there was another prompt behind Indigo’s musical theme. While there are obviously links between Peteris’s urban design career and his perception of the human form as a kind of landscape, as an artist he’s long felt an affinity with the improvisational world of jazz and blues music.

‘I think the processes that composers and musicians go through and enter into are often so much more aligned with the way I like to work from a visual arts perspective, than for other visual artists. Some of the best times I’ve painted, even if the moment doesn’t occur often, there’s that moment when there’s this wonderful channelling…where [the work] seems to come from somewhere else and it’s no longer coming from the mind. You’re no longer trying to intellectualise it.’

Dave Hole recalls a similar conversation with Ciemitis before sitting for his portrait. Since his recording debut sixteen years ago, the ARIA award-winner has earned a reputation as one of the world’s most revered blues slide guitarists. Unsurprisingly, he’s a man well acquainted with the creative mindset artists adopt during improvisation.

‘Music’s probably the most immediate and final creative process you can have because it’s into the airwaves and into people’s ears before you can refine it,’ he says. ‘The best improvisation with music happens when you’re not aware that you’re even playing. I mean that sounds silly… but there’s all sorts of expressions for these sorts of states that one can be in, like ‘in the zone’ and whatever, but sometimes on my very best nights when I’m performing, I feel like the guitar is playing itself. I think that necessitates the switching off of your conscious mind as much as possible.

‘I think with Peter,’ he continues, ‘he needs to switch that off, partly to get in touch with his intuition. If you’re sitting opposite someone painting them, clearly there are two issues there. One is the purely technical aspect of it. I mean we’ve got photographs now so I don’t think portraits should be just an accurate physical representation of someone. So, the other issue really is how that personality strikes you and what’s emanating from that person that you can capture in time and incorporate or express in some manner on the canvas. So yeah, you really have to switch off that conscious thought. I mean, I don’t suppose it helps a lot thinking ‘this guy is this’ and ‘this guy is that’ you really just have to intuit and try and relate to a person on a level where their personality, whatever makes them tick is coming out onto the canvas in some form.’

Similarly, Ciemitis argues that in any creative medium there is an inseparable link between an artist’s subconscious and his produce. When it comes to portraiture he explains, every work is a kind of self-portrait. ‘Artists will always inscribe some element of themselves onto the canvas whether they do it deliberately or not,’ he says. ‘Even if there looks like there’s no direct expressiveness in a painting, the fact that an artist has made the choice to remove expressiveness says something in itself.’

‘It’s easier when you’re painting musicians,’ he continues, ‘because you’re able to tap into their music afterwards, connect with their creative expression and get a sense of them from that. They communicate their emotional landscape through their music, so, it’s possible to kind of read it and help inform a sense of that person.’

While the task of being a sitter would no doubt have its awkward moments, the most unnerving element of being one is most likely the unveiling of the finished portrait. As Ciemitis says, ‘we tend to look at people but not look at people’. Which begs the question – how easy would it be to look at yourself through someone else’s eyes?

Max Noakes is a freelance arts and music journalist whose work can be found in numerous online and print publications. He is part-owner of Perth music website Space Ship News, casual broadcaster on RTRFM and is heading the non-fiction editorial panel for the third issue of literary journal dotdotdash. He is currently undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing at Curtin University, where he was awarded the Australian Post Graduate Award and Curtin University Postgraduate Scholarship.

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