South Australian artist Peter Serwan focusses on the surrounding environment for inspiration.
“I’m interested in the urban landscape, and my immediate environment has often been a catalyst for many of the ideas and concerns in my work,” Serwan says.
“These ideas have developed over a long period of time.”
Serwan has had an extensive career exhibiting both locally and interstate. Early works tended to be straight landscapes or straight streetscapes, with Serwan gradually introducing the figure into the environment.
“It took me a while to work out what kind of relationship I wanted my figures to have within the environment. The earliest thinking I had of painting backyards with figures was a reference to my own childhood.”
Serwan grew up in Mt Gambier with Polish migrant parents – his dad worked the railways and his mum stayed home.
“In my early 30s I used to wonder whether in my childhood the backyard was a metaphor for sanctuary or a prison. They were the strongest considerations I had about making statements using the urban landscape.”
These days the figure, or more often than not groups of figures, are a common element in Serwan’s work, and he tends to use friends or work colleagues, people he is comfortable with.
For instance, the painting Making the Most of the Moment is a reflection on the workplace and features a number of colleagues from Prince Alfred College, where he works. The steam train in the foreground is a symbol for the gravy train. Serwan likes catching the bus and walking, which is where he often finds inspiration.
For example the work Sprawl depicts a cow in front of orange fencing and a billboard featuring an eye from a discarded cigarette packet he found at a bus stop. The orange bunting, often seen at construction sites, appears in a number of Serwan’s works and is a symbol of urbanism and development.
“I really like the orange bunting. It locks things in, it’s very compositional. It integrates the whole picture plane,” he says. Billboards, a symbol of consumerism, are also common in Serwan’s work. He says:
“I think the notion of billboards tends to tap into the social consciousness of people, of society. They reflect how people might be thinking.”
In the work Promised Land, a billboard depicting a tranquil couple with the words www.sweet.com across it sits among the urban sprawl. In the foreground is a dog peeing, ruining the perfect scene, throwing water on the idea that this tranquillity exists. In his latest work, Serwan is using more visual metaphors, where an object or form is employed to evoke a particular response in the viewer.
“It adds a tension to the sort of images I’ve been making. The work varies from more landscape type works to almost social commentary from my point of view, how I think I see the world.”
With failing eyesight, Serwan feels a need to get back to basics and perhaps loosen up the way he paints.
“I’m not really sure what’s going to happen next and there is some need for some quiet time in the studio and to nut out a direction,” he says.
“I feel the subjects I have been working on is the way to be going, that’s a gut feeling, but the way I physically produce the work might need to change.”