Infinite Depths

Peter Polites’s oceanscapes and landscapes are measured responses to phenomena never at rest.

When Peter Polites sells one of his water-themed paintings to someone, he often likes to tell them with a bit of humor, “Batteries are included with the canvas.” The themes he captures—the turbulence of roiling ocean surf, cresting waves, the hiss and evaporation of sea foam, shifting clouds that mark the approach of a distant storm, the gravitational pull of tides—all bespeak constant movement, an endless source of power. No batteries are required to look at Polites’s works, but his canvases do seem infused with an internal energy. The Atlanta-based Polites (pronounced po lightis), who is also an architect for his namesake firm (and designer of the Newington-Cropsey Foundation Gallery of Art), covets turbulence. “I have a great deal of respect for waves,” he says, “and the most enjoyable moments for me to paint are when there is a nearby storm, a hurricane on the way, because that’s when the water gets really wild and wholly.”

<i>Inlet Falling Snow</i>, 2015<br/>COURTESY OF THE ARTIST <i>Davis Marsh Fall</i>, 2015<br/>COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

<i>Golden Mountain Mist</i>, 2015<br/>COURTESY OF THE ARTISTPolites’s current solo exhibition at the Greenwich Bank and Trust Company in Riverside, Connecticut (through January 29, 2016), reveals the kind of oceanic fury in which he likes to be immersed as an artist. But the show also features moments of calmness—figures silhouetted against a golden beach at daybreak (Gold Beach Scene—Morning Moment), mist-enshrouded hills (Golden Mountain Mist), inland marshland and bodies of water (Davis Marsh Fall and Mill Pond Dusk), and landscapes covered in newly fallen snow (Inlet Falling Snow). But the real power of this show and the works that best reveal his uncanny ability to capture the most ephemeral and complex of natural phenomena resides with his seascapes.

While some of the vistas in the show look to the seemingly infinite landscape of the ocean (many situated in and around Tybee Island in Georgia), one work, in particular, centers on an interaction beneath a pier. In Breaking Wave in Early Light, we see the simultaneous advance and retreat of waves, a white frothy moment where they meet, and we discern the sheer depths and currents of the water. “When I was standing on this pier and shooting photos of the waves cracking and crashing below me,” Polites says, “I realized that the same thing going on below our feet on a pier is going on in the galaxies. The Hubble has shown us this fact. There is the same galactic movement in ocean waters as there is up there in the universe.”

Polites is so accustomed to the ways of the ocean, from the days he bodysurfed as a boy on Tybee Island, to his countless hours fishing the waters and wandering the beaches, that he is able to reference the water as much from his imagination as from photographs he has taken. For the painting from the pier, he estimates that he has probably taken five hundred photos of that very scene, but the resulting composition represents a borrowing of moments from all of them. “This painting, in particular, represents the direction I want to go in as a painter,” he says.” I want to capture the internal waves that are deep in the water, the turbulence that fades into deeper water, the actual layers of depths. I want viewers to feel that they’re about to stick their hands into the water and feel the current.”

<i>Breaking Wave in Early Light</i> 2014<br/>COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

<i>Gold Beach Scene—Morning Moment</i>, 2015<br/>COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

To achieve his painterly effects, Polites admits to “using whatever it takes to get a particular effect.” To replicate the actual gold quality that water takes on when it is calm and at certain times of day, he might use a can of gold spray paint or pinches of gold powder sprinkled on to the canvas. For the roiling, massing of turbulent water, he might dip a rag in paint and dab it to the canvas. Fingertips, old toothbrushes, worn brushes, the edges of a credit card, as well as finely haired brushes and other tools all are used to create the effects he seeks.

Whatever landscape or seascape he wishes to articulate, though, “each is composed of a particular feeling I have. I will use photos I’ve taken as reference for color, light, how the light plays on water, but I want to paint the rhythms I see. I try to compose in such a manner than anywhere viewers look, they go for a kind of roller-coaster ride through the whole painting, that they wander. I want to play synaptic braintricks on the viewer.” Indeed, there is never a moment in his water paintings in which there is not some captured movement, some complexity of form that is a mere moment away from changing yet again. To look into the oceanscape of his Inhaling In Morning Glare, for example, is to see a near infinite articulation of the glimmer of sunlight on distant ocean waves, the gatherings of patches of foam, the ever-shifting choreography of the clouds.  His Turning Tide captures a profile of the ocean as it meets the sand of a beach as a storm is either approaching or retreating, while Skipping Light on an Open Sea is as abstract as it is realistic in its ability to embrace the quick movement of sunrays.

<i>Inhaling in Morning Glare</i>, 2014<br/>COURTESY OF THE ARTIST <i>Turning Tide</i>, 2011<br/>COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

Polites paints in a converted two-car garage in his home in Atlanta and he likes having a steady concrete floor below him, since he doesn’t have to worry about making a mess—and there he can paint tidal pulls while remaining well grounded. “When I’m painting, I’m think I’m more right-brain oriented and when I’m doing architecture, more left-brained. I am at my happiest in life when I have an architectural design on going with a painting in progress. I can go back and forth and I actually feel a psychological enhancement. Architecture is about a rational response to building. Art has a much more wild muse about it.”

<i>Skipping Light on an Open Sea</i>, 2014<br/>COURTESY OF THE ARTIST

When asked why he has chosen as his subject matter the most ephemeral and complex of the earth’s phenomena, Polites says, “Because the ocean is the fundamental place where life begins. The movement of water starts to feel like the movement of the cosmos, which we don’t experience, but know about. Galaxies move just as the ocean waters do.” And neither require batteries.

The Greenwich Bank and Trust Company, 1103 East Putnam Avenue, Riverside, Connecticut (through January 29), 203-618-8900