Kevin Peterson, Streetlight, Oil on Panel with Metal, 2012

 By Valerie Manley

Smith, Untitled, Spray paint on steel gate. Belfast, Ireland, 1998



Figure 2 Kevin Peterson, Lovely


Figure 3 Alfredo D’Amato,A 14 year old boy stands with his crutches by graffiti on a wall, 2011



Figure 4 Kevin Peterson, The Divide



Figure 5 William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The Madonna of the Lilies, 1899





In Streetlight by Kevin Peterson, a young woman holding a baby stands alone against a dirty, graffiti covered wall at night. The perfectly smooth painted surface and realistic rendering of figures, combined with their drab clothing, and appearance of youthful innocence, create interesting tension within the piece in comparison to the bright, colorful, rough and corrupt graffiti covered walls. This tension generates a semiotic interplay between the values of smooth and rough, drab and colorful, innocent and corrupt that is almost narrative in quality.

The woman, who cannot be more than eighteen years old, is dressed in a modest, black long-sleeved shirt and long grey skirt. Her dark brown hair is pulled into a low bun leaving her face completely visible. She stands there, holding the infant as she looks off to the left beyond the picture plane. Unlike the woman, the baby looks out directly toward the viewer, arms stretched out to its sides with a smile on its face. Light filters down from the upper right hand side of the painting from what can be assumed to be the implied streetlight from which the painting gets its name. This intense lighting technique draws focus to the two figures while also illuminating the graffiti-covered wall.

Peterson’s figural subjects are in direct visual contrast to the urban, inner-city wall against which they stand. Where the figures, Caucasians clad in shades of grey, are almost devoid of color, the wall is covered in bright angular graffiti known as “wildstyle.”[1] With vibrant tones of yellow, blue, red and orange throughout, the unreadable stylized scrawl moves the eye around the background of the piece. Wildstyle is known for its intricate letterforms as well as directional arrows, stars and other shapes.(Fig. 1).[2] Not only is wildstyle graffiti itself difficult to read, but Peterson has intentionally cropped the beginning and end of the word or name written so it cannot be read at all. This cropping technique strengthens the incongruence between the carefully framed and rendered figures and their setting, contrasting part to whole, illegible to legible. This incongruence deepens the painting’s tension.

The graffitied contrasts the figures not only visually but also tactilely. The surface of the wall is rough and built up with layers of paint, whereas the figures are completely smooth and crisp. The upper portion of the painting is metal grating that has been screwed into the canvas and painted over, giving an even more realistic texture to the piece. The obvious incongruence in texture exemplifies the tension between the figures and their setting. It becomes obvious to the viewer that these tightly painted, perfectly smooth and realistically rendered figures are so vastly at odds with the rough, wildly painted almost abstracted graffiti wall. The multimedia aspect of the painting is something that can be seen in several of Kevin Peterson’s works. In Lovely (Fig. 2), Peterson attached a piece of corrugated metal to the top of the painting, yet painted his young female figure below with an almost airbrushed smoothness. This material incongruence in media strengthens the pictorial tension in both works.

While the color palette and tactile contrasts between the figures and the wall are a major source of interest in the piece, these physical dissimilarities also draw attention to the incongruity of the vulnerable, innocent-looking figures and their urban, worldly setting. In this contrast, Peterson explores a social tension that is common in contemporary art, perhaps especially in documentary photography. It is this conflict between youthful vulnerability and the hard world, between smooth and rough, that Alfredo D’Amato explores, for instance in a photography of a young man with crutches standing against a crumbling, graffiti stricken wall in Tunisia (Fig. 3). This image is compositionally similar to Streetlight, and it provides a photographic analogy to Peterson’s photo-real manner of painting the soft, smooth, vulnerable figure against a backdrop of rough corrupt metal, stone, and plaster.

In some of his works, the social themes implicit in Streetlight emerge more clearly. For example, The Divide (Fig. 4) depicts an even more obvious example of the conflict between figures and environment by depicting two young children playing in front of a back-ally loading dock covered in graffiti in the shadow of a large dumpster. Above them, on the raised platform of the dock lays a homeless person on his or her makeshift bed talking to another man who appears to be bringing water. This shocking tension between the youths and their setting—kids on skid row–provokes surprise, anxiety, and curiosity from the viewer. The narrative tension is The Divide may be much more explicit than in Streetlight but the artist explores the same visual ideas in both.

In Streetlight, the implicit narrative tension is driven in part by the viewer’s recognition of the young woman and child as iconographic descendants of the most familiar, precious mother and child in all of art history: the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. Peterson’s flawless, even academic technique recalls images of the Virgin and Child like Madonna of the Lilies by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (Fig. 4), the figures in which strongly recall those in Streetlight. Bouguereau depicts Mary dressed in dark clothing holding the baby Jesus alone in the center of the painting while he holds his arms outstretched. The background of the piece is filled with a bright, abstract floral pattern, a nineteenth century academic precursor to Peterson’s bright, graffitied wall. Peterson’s work is not only similar to Bouguereau’s in composition, but also in his artistic approach. Bouguereau is known for his perfectly smooth and academic treatment of his figures.[3] Bouguereau’s Madonna and Child are tightly rendered, highly realistic representations of a young woman and child. Peterson, a contemporary master of historical techniques of realism, paints his in a tight academic style that recalls Bouguereau and artists like him.

Streetlight explores the relationship between the figures of the painting and the graffiti covered wall of the background by highlighting the contrasts between the two elements. These contrasts create an interesting tension within the piece that gives it a narrative quality. The contrasts of texture and technique and of figure and setting contribute to a dynamic work of art that challenges viewers to reflect on the meaning of these unexpected juxtapositions.

[1] Margo Thompson. American Graffiti. New York, NY: Parkstone Internat., 2009, pp. 42-45.

[2] Thompson, 42.

[3] Beck, Sibylle. “William-Adolphe Bouguereau.” Munster 54, no. 3 (2001): 242-50.


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