A traditional technique experiencing a contemporary renaissance, figurative art remains a discipline reserved for the most skilled of painters. Peter Drake, a New York-born artist, curator, and the Dean of Academic Affairs at the New York Academy of Art, is one of those painters. His works, representational in nature yet emanating a surrealist glow, often incorporate scenes from American suburban life. Working since the 1970s, Drake’s work has been shown across the United States and Europe, and constantly engages with the contemporary dialogue surrounding figurative art. From his early work satirically depicting the ‘quiet despair’ of suburban life, to his latest paintings commenting on the decaying nature of plastic figurines and toy objects, Drake’s oeuvre is at once familiar and hauntingly dreamlike.
As an educator at one of the foremost figurative art institutions and a working artist, Drake manages a full schedule of academics alongside his practice: His latest solo exhibition, Re-picture, on view at Linda Warren Projects in Chicago, opened in November and will remain through mid-January 2018. Artrepreneur caught up with Drake in his DUMBO studio, where he discussed the balancing act required of the average working artist today.
Drawing From Life: Peter Drake’s Figurative Art
NM: So much of your work is inspired by suburban life. Tell me a bit about that.
Peter Drake: I was raised on Long Island in a town called Garden City, which was actually one of the first suburbs in America. It was developed by a guy named Alexander Stewart, and he knew that there was going to be a market for houses away from the city, that people wanted to be able to have access to their business in the city, but they wanted their families to be raised someplace else. So this is in the very late 19th century, he built one of the first train lines that went out to Long Island.
This town literally was built almost completely artificially. There was no one living in it. It didn’t grow up around an industry or anything like that, it was just a completely planned community. So it’s got some very traditional old kind of gothic houses and it’s also got the usual kind of ranch houses, and the split-levels and the things like that. It’s a weird mixture of very suburban mid-century architecture and then 19th-century architecture.
My father was actually a director at NBC radio. So he directed, wrote and produced radio drama for quite a few years. In my family there was always a lot of support for being creative, my brother was a drummer, I was basically born to be a painter, and encouraged my entire life.
But at the same time, a lot of what fueled my perspective on the suburbs in particular, came out of this feeling that being raised in this upper middle-class community, everything appeared to be absolutely perfect. Everybody had the right clothes, everybody had the right cars, everybody had the right education, but underneath it didn’t take long until you saw the unhappiness. It didn’t take long to see this kind of quiet despair. Not that everything was bad either, it’s just life, the same life that you’d find everywhere. The same degree of violence, disappointment, whatever. So that sort of has been a theme that’s run through my work pretty much my entire life. The first 10 years of my exhibition life, 1980 to 90, I worked almost exclusively in black in white on pieces like this.
NM: How did this vision of suburban life figure into your early works?
Peter Drake: The first body of work I did was entirely from my imagination. They’re very much from the suburbs but done subtractively. One of the things that happen when you work subtractively – especially at the time, I was using really rough tools – is that it tends to rip the paper, to make a much more aggressive stroke. You can’t see it too much in my recent drawings because they are more subtle. But what I like so much is that it created a sense of decay. In my mind that was a metaphor for life in the suburbs, there’s this picture that’s presented to you but ultimately it’s kind of decaying. There’s a sense of loss.
NM: How have those themes managed to remain a part of your practice?
Peter Drake: I tend to work very atmospherically, even though my paintings are very structural and some people refer to them as closed form. They’re very atmospherically handled. But then again, there are areas that are really high-focus, so there’s a sense of depth of field. I have both these things, a sense of structure but also a sense of atmosphere, something that you’re sensing in the depth of the painting.
NM: So much of your work looks like a weird creation between painting and digital art.
Peter Drake: I think it’s because I work indirectly which means lots and lots of glazes. Glazing is a tradition that comes from 17th-century Dutch painting and 18th-century Italian painting, and I work exclusively in acrylic. The nice thing about it is you can literally do thousands of glazes in a day, whereas if you were working with oil you’d be lucky if you made one or two.
Traditional Skills, Contemporary Discourse
NM: How did you develop such a technical practice? How has education in figurative art evolved?
Peter Drake: I was in school in the mid-70s, and in that time there was sort of an inheritance from the ’60s. If you were to go to art school then there was almost no technical training at all, unless you were in an illustration program. That’s the only place where people taught you the actual techniques of drawing. So the people that I knew [at art school], that I connected to, basically we all taught ourselves. There were obviously a handful of teachers who were very generous with their time and technical training, but even they felt like they were kind of swimming upstream.
I think it was this way because at that time, reductive abstraction, minimalism, the origins of conceptualism, those concepts were being taught. Which was great in some ways because it put you in a very heady, intellectual environment, but if you wanted to learn the basics of painting, you couldn’t. Very few people were there to teach it, it gets lost. All it takes is two generations and all that information disappears. So most of my colleagues that are my age taught themselves, but the New York Academy of Art is very, very traditional in that respect. We say we offer traditional skills, and contemporary discourse. That’s our vision basically. You develop your skills as intensely as you possibly can and then our students choose what is meaningful for them and decide how to use it.
NM: Why has the New York Academy of Art decided that this approach is the most suitable for training contemporary students in figurative art?
Peter Drake: There are a lot of schools out there that teach technique but no concept. And there are lots of schools that will teach nothing but concept. Blending the two of them is what is really important to us at the New York Academy of Art. The nice thing about going to the Academy is that it’s a beautiful place. The work is wonderful; everybody is so engaged and excited by the same things. In most other art schools, in one classroom you can have a video artist, a performance artist, a text artist, a painter, a photographer and the teachers have no critical criteria that make sense for all those disciplines. It’s next to impossible. But at the Academy, you have people who are really interested in the traditions of painting and sculpture and applying them to contemporary discourse, so everyone is more or less on the same page. And you get a much more coherent mission statement and also curriculum. So it’s actually a wonderful place to be. The people that are in a school like that really want to be in a school like that. There is no other place in the world that is designed this way. We call ourselves the Juilliard of the art world. You get all this training but it doesn’t keep you from being progressive.
NM: So what made you want to go into education?
Peter Drake: I didn’t really do that by design. I was very lucky. I started showing almost as soon as I got out of school. I started showing at the non-profits in New York and then I started showing at marketplace galleries so I was always living off of my work. And then there was a period when I got a residency in Germany, and when I came back, a friend of mine, Lesley Dill, approached me and said, “You know I’m teaching at Parsons and now they’re looking for a painting instructor, would you be interested?” And I was just about ready to change my studio, it had gotten a lot more expensive, so I said you know what, teaching one day a week will offset the cost of a new studio.
So it was a totally mercenary decision on my part because I’m actually a very anxious person and I have a lot of self-doubt when it comes to teaching and things like that. It was horrible. It seemed like a nightmare scenario for me. But then I started to like it after a few years and realized that you can have an impact on the art world through teaching that is really profound. The thing about teaching that is really true for every teacher is that it keeps you on your toes. You have to stay engaged. You have to be reading, you have to be going to museums, you have to stay on top of things.
Making a Living as a Painter and Educator
NM: How have you balanced being an educator with being a full-time artist?
Peter Drake: It’s really hard. It’s just the hardest thing for right now. David [Kratz, President of the New York Academy of Art] tries to get me to take three-day weekends as often as I possibly can. “Don’t worry about it, it’s not vacation time, you’re doing research, you’re doing your own work. You’re only valuable to us if you’re happy with your work, if you’re happy in the studio,” he’ll say. And he’s the same way. He tries to build time for his studio practice too.
The hard thing is if I get home at the end of the day, sometimes it’s like a 12-hour day or a 10 hour day, and you’re so exhausted that the last thing you want to do is to work. But then you sit down and you have some dinner and a drink – I have a small studio at home also – and all of a sudden I look over at a piece I’m working on and I want to work for a few hours. Even if you’re just working an hour or two, it actually does add up.
NM: That’s likely evidenced by your latest show in Chicago, where much of the work being shown is new.
Peter Drake: Yes, I’ve got a show up now in Chicago, and I think there are 30 pieces. It’s a huge show. It’s from the past five years or so but it is still a lot of work. You just have to realize that the hardest thing is getting started. Once you get started, it’s easy, you get hypnotized by it. It’s true for writing; it’s true for anything. The blank page is terrifying. And suddenly you start writing and you think: ‘Oh, I’m in a groove.’
NM: When you got out of school, how did you manage to sell work?
Peter Drake: You know I love talking about that because it’s such a weird thing. Today, most art schools have Professional Practice classes where you teach yourself how to get grants, how to get residencies, how to work with small museums and galleries and do pop-up shows or whatever. So people are being trained a little bit more in the business of art. Whereas when I was in school, it was the ivory tower. You never talked about the marketplace. They would protect the students from the real world instead of preparing them. And I really believe in preparing people for the real world.
When I got out of school, the first thing I did was approach nonprofit cultural centers in New York. At the time, the biggest ones were White Columns, the Drawing Center, Artist Space, the Alternative Museum. So I just started approaching those places and trying to get into group shows. I have funny stories about walking around in Soho with my drawings.
NM: Are there any stories in particular you’d like to share?
Peter Drake: I had literally a six-foot roll of drawings, and I was going to galleries and trying to get people to look at my work. One day I was completely disillusioned because I had been invited to show my work to this gallery and I had to put my drawings all over the floor. All of a sudden, the Director comes in and she says “not for me” and walks away.
So I’m sitting there on west Broadway with my dumb roll of drawings and all of a sudden this guy walks up to me, a complete stranger, dressed like a hippie. Cowhide vest and tie-dye jeans, the whole thing. He sat next to me and said, “Are those your slides, can I look at them?” I said sure, so he sat next to me and says “You know there’s a gallery that just opened up on Prince Street. I bet they’d like your work. You should go take a look.” And then he walked away. It’s literally the only time I saw this guy, I never saw him again.
So I walked over to that gallery and walked up to the desk and the owner was there. I asked, “Are you looking at new work” and he said “Sure, put it out on the floor” and I thought oh no, not again. So he takes a look at them and he calls his wife over – she was his business partner – and they say “Do you want to be in a three-person show next month?” I was like, sure.
The point was I had to go through the humiliation of being willing to be rejected over and over and over again until – I refer to him as my hippy fairy godfather – he finally found me. Sprinkled some fairy dust on me. But if I weren’t sitting there looking forlorn, he would not have come up to me. Everything just fell into place in a weird way.
Marketing Work in the Digital Age
NM: I guess the equivalent in today’s world of walking around with your drawings would be an online presence. How much of your own online persona do you manage, and do you tell your students that they need to do it?
Peter Drake: My wife handles most of my online marketing. Instagram is just so important. Facebook still is to a certain degree because there’s a different kind of story that you can share with people, but Instagram now is the easiest way. The nice thing is that you see a lot of art in a very short period of time. It’s amazing how much stuff you can see. So obviously an online presence is huge now and didn’t even exist when I was a young artist.
NM: Has any new work arose or any new relationships been forged thanks to your online presence?
Peter Drake: I have and it shows you the advantage of having a website and a digital presence. My website is not up-to-date but at the time that Linda [Warren] called me, she called me out of the blue. She was just surfing the Internet and found my website. Someone had linked it to their website or whatever and she fell in love with the work. She called me immediately and we had a two-hour conversation about art. She’s been really my most ardent supporter and we’ve become dear friends. She is somebody that I trust more than anyone. Any show that I do – I’ll say I’d like to do a show that has animations, figurative art paintings that are based on the animations or that lead to the animations, and she says “It’s great, that sounds good.”
NM: That raises an interesting point about the nature of gallery relationships. Do you think its better to work with a gallery exclusively or have a few galleries selling your work?
Peter Drake: That’s a tough question because right now I’m only working with one dealer but there was a point in my life where I was working with five dealers at the same time. And there are some real advantages to it, because markets go up and down. But the downside was everyone expects to get new work all the time and I don’t paint more than 12 paintings a year. It would be all-consuming. So I would always find myself in the position of disappointing people or having to move work from gallery to gallery just to get it to find an audience. And so I believe in the metaphor of the table with 10 legs: If one of the legs is going to do the prints and another the writing and another the curating and another the grants and residencies – if one gets pulled out, the table is still very sound. But if it only has three legs, you are screwed. Most artists get so focused on just gallery work and they don’t realize you have to do more, especially now.
N: What kind of advice do you get to your students at the New York Academy of Art for getting their work out there and being able to live off their art?
Peter Drake: I talk about that table metaphor quite a bit, that you have to be able to do as many things as you can, and it’s hard because you only have so many hours in a day. But it is important to go to residencies and meet people there. You have to be constantly networking. You do have to write grants, supporting yourself that way is also important. If you get a grant you’re not just getting money but you’re building connections to their staff, to their resources. So it sounds like you’d be spreading yourself thin because you don’t always have a lot of time in the studio when you have to manage your business that way, but I think that’s just the most important thing. You just have to be thinking in multiple prongs.