CLOSE-UP: PETER ASPELL

Into the glare of success

ANNE GREGOR October 19 1987
CLOSE-UP: PETER ASPELL

Into the glare of success

ANNE GREGOR October 19 1987

Into the glare of success

CLOSE-UP: PETER ASPELL

The huge, colorful paintings almost overwhelmed the gallery where they were hanging last month in fashionable West Hollywood, Calif. Patrons circulated with glasses of California wine, chatting as they studied the oil canvases. Most of the paintings were as tall as their creator, Vancouverborn painter Peter Aspell, 68. A trim man in a white linen suit with shaggy greying hair and a reddish beard, Aspell stood happily in the midst of his work at the Wade Gallery. Within 24 hours three of his 12 canvases on display were sold—at an average price of $7,000. Wade Gallery co-owner Ronald Kram, another Canadian, said that an Aspell painting in his window even caused several passing drivers to brake to a sudden stop for a look. Less than a year after his first show at a major gallery, Aspell has been accepted into the enclave of artists who compete for art buyers in wealthy Los Angeles. Said Aspell, savoring his new celebrity: “I never thought it was going to happen.” Buyers at the prestigious Chicago International Art Fair last May also

snapped up seven of eight Aspell paintings on display, an unusual event in an artist’s first appearance there. And Toronto art dealer Walter Moos is showing Aspell’s paintings at his galleries in Toronto and New York. Striking colors and shapes distinguish Aspell’s oils. “His ability and confiai fter years of being unknown, Aspell has been accepted into the enclave of artists who compete for wealthy art buyers

dence with paint is a joy,” said Moos, who agreed to display Aspell’s work as soon as he saw it last January. On Aspell’s huge canvases—a size of six by 4V2 feet is common—primitive images seem to float in pools of color, layered generously with a palette knife. “The size gives the forms the ability to float,” Aspell explained in an

interview, adding, “I am not a detailed painter.” He said that he draws inspiration from his impressions of the primitive aspects of Africa and the Far East, although he has never travelled there. Variations of African tribal objects appear frequently in his paintings—as do disembodied heads, stylized trees, and figures with skinny bodies and long limbs.

Aspell’s recognition has emerged only after decades of obscurity as an artist. His great-great-uncle on his father’s side was 19th-century German court painter Franz Winterhalter, but his immediate family boasted no other artists. Aspell taught hundreds of students during 29 years at the Vancouver Art School. Then, in 1975 he opened his own art school in Vancouver, but it foundered eight years later. And in the 1960s and 1970s, Aspell recalled, he felt that critics regarded him as an introvert who painted only sporadically—he had six children and was battling the emotional strain of an unhappy second marriage. “Unfortunately,” Aspell said, “I just sort of rotted away.”

Then, nine months ago one of Aspell’s daughters, interior designer Emily Aspell, started visiting commercial galleries in Toronto, where she lives, with several of her father’s small paintings—quick drafts of

planned works—in hand. Moos, who has been an art dealer for 28 years, agreed to show them at his Gallery Moos in fashionable Yorkville—and they sold out in three days. Said Moos: “I feel like I have discovered

a 68-year-young artist.”

Aspell said that he has never felt at home in the Vancouver art scene. “The theme on the West Coast is landscape,” he declared, “and I have never been taken seriously.” But he acknowl-

edged that a sense of the wilderness has found its way into his work. “When I was young I would walk through the woods and feel that primeval force,” said Aspell. “You could throw yourself down on the ground and hear a heartbeat. The primitiveness is always with me.” That symbolism turned Hollywood screenwriter Jack Epps Jr. into an Aspell fan. Epps, whose hit movie scripts include Top Gun, has owned an Aspell painting for eight months. “Every day I look at it,” Epps said, “it seems like the first time.” And the informal studies are also popular: the Los Angeles branch of U.S. investment bank Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. recently purchased five for its collection.

Aspell, who lives in Vancouver and paints daily, has vowed to make the most of his newfound fame. “I am more egotistical now,” he said. “It is only in the last few years that nothing can knock me off my course.” Indeed, on Oct. 10 another solo show opened at the Gallery Moos in New York City’s SoHo district, where it will run until early November. For Aspell, it is one more in a series of new challenges and rewards. “I have been blessed to blossom creatively at 68 years of age,” he said. “I am bursting to get on with it.”

— ANNE GREGOR in Los Angeles