Australian figurative painter, Peter Churcher has been living in Barcelona for the nearly three years after a three-month Australia Council studio residency there. I met Peter Churcher recently at an opening at the Counihan Gallery; he was back in Australia for his exhibition at Philip Bacon Galleries. I had met him before when I did some of his CAE portrait painting classes. So I arranged to ask him, via email, about what had attracted him to live and paint in Barcelona.
Peter Churcher replied: “The main lure of Barcelona for me, artistically, is the continuous throng of ‘human traffic’ that exists on the streets, day and night. I find this unceasing flow of human activity and ritual that plays out before my eyes inspiring and central to my work.”
To get an idea of the scale of this ‘human traffic’; Barcelona has a much higher population density than Melbourne, with 15,936 habitants/km² than Melbourne’s 1566 habitants/km². And Barcelona also has a lively street culture with Las Ramblas, a pedestrian mall running up the center of the old city close to where Peter Churcher’s has his living space and attached studio.
“I was equally interested in exploring the human condition in my painting in Melbourne before I left for Barcelona, but there is one important difference in the way this theme manifests itself in the studio in Barcelona compared to my earlier studio in Melbourne. In Melbourne the studio was a “bubble” I would disappear into each day. Once I was inside I felt quite isolated and cut-off from my source inspiration out on the “streets”. When I got a street-kid into my studio, for modelling, I felt a bit like he or she had become a specimen in a glass jar which I was inspecting. In Barcelona, however, there exists a much more fluid flow between the studio and what I see on the streets.”
The last exhibition of Peter Churcher’s that I saw was at Lauraine Diggins Fine Art in 2001. His paintings were of realist figures, ordinary people, like Craig, the Butcher or Monique, a goth woman with a studied choker and pierced eyebrow. So I asked Peter if he was working with local models in Barcelona?
“In terms of working with the life model, I am doing that more than ever in Barcelona. At first when I arrived I was the “outsider” with no contacts or access to classes/models etc. This quickly changed when I was introduced by a local to the wonderful old Artist’s club Sant Lluc of which I am now a member. This particular club is not just an Artist’s watering-hole where artists sit around and drink and talk about making art but rather is a “working” club. Life-models are employed morning and evening 6 days a week in life-drawing sessions, life-painting fixed poses for a whole week, etc. The member is free to come and go and work in whatever studio he or she chooses. I go regularly to this club to draw from the model and have made contact with many wonderful professional models who now work for me privately in the studio.”
It would be easy to draw comparisons between Peter Churcher’s painting painters of the Spanish Baroque because of Churcher’s “simple and direct” painting and the sense of drama in his groups of figures. Churcher sees these comparisons too but his thoughts remains on the streets of Barcelona.
“I feel the subject matter of my recent Barcelona work is really starting to tap into the contemporary street culture that surrounds me. The groupings, for me, are now skate-board dudes, rap dancers and old, withered ladies with their dogs. I am enjoying this easy and natural flow between my own, everyday world and those scenes from the masters of past.”
Peter Churcher has had three exhibitions of his paintings from Barcelona in 2007 and 2009 at Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane and in 2008 at Australian Galleries, Melbourne.