A Career Retrospective of Peter Cain, 20 Years After His Untimely Death

Artwork: Peter Cain. Sean Number Two, 1996. Oil on linen, 60 x 84 inches, 152 x 213 cm.

When painter Peter Cain died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 37 at in 1997, he left the art world in a state of shock. His career, which he been on the rise for over a decade, had begun to transform into new realms. What remained was a body of work that comprised 63 paintings that reveal a life interrupted, full of promise and potency, an ability to transform the archetypes of the era into something equally compelling and curious.

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Matthew Marks, which represented him during his life, now presents Peter Cain, a new exhibition of works at their Los Angeles galleries, currently on view through September 1, 2017. Featuring paintings, drawings, and collages made between the late 1980s and 1997, this is Cain’s first solo show in LA since 1990.

Peter Cain. Mobil, 1996 .Oil on linen, 37 x 57 inches, 94 x 145 cm.

The breadth of the collection reveals Cain’s development and the directions he had been heading at the time of his death. His earlier works, which brought him to game, are sumptuous paintings of automobiles that combine aspects of Surrealism and Photorealism to stunning effect, luring us into a strange realm where nothing is quite what it seems, yet you’re apt to believe in its truth, just as you would in a dream.

The exhibition gives us the full scope of Cain’s mastery of this field, a space that combines as delectation of advertising with sly tongue-in-cheek of adult cartoons, inviting us to take them as they appear or delve beneath the surface of illusion. They are as simple and complex as we are, allowing us to appreciate their beauty while they subvert our expectations of high art.

The show includes a selection of Cain’s preparatory collages, on view for the first time, along with sketches, source photos, and notebooks from the artist’s archive to give us an understanding of his process as an artist. These elements give us a sense of the man behind the work, the man that artist Jack Pierson described beautifully in the 2005 exhibition catalogue for The Los Angeles Drawings:

“Peter was very boy. He smoked Marlboros, didn’t make his bed, only wore Wranglers or Levis cords with a Fruit of the Loom pocket T-shirt and a ski hat. He was a spoiled brat because anybody would do anything for him, and he basically did whatever he wanted, which was not much, besides paint and listen to music. Did I mention he was gorgeous?  Pretty, like an angel that you just wanted to slap.  So of course he got away with murder.”

Peter Cain. Omega, 1994. Oil on linen, 67 x 51 1/2 inches, 170 x 131 cm.

You sense this in the work, even though you have no reason to know who or how he was, but perhaps that is conveyed in the art itself. The ability to achieve visual perfection is discarded for something more, something deeply mesmerizing and pure. This sensibility becomes heightened in his late work, when he departed from cars as his focal point.

In 1995, just two years before his death, Cain began to create a new series of work that was part figure study, part landscape, centered around his boyfriend Sean, reclining on the beach. The following year, he began to paint and draw gas stations and strip malls around LA with the same heightened detail and love of superficial splendor that defines all of his work.

Photographer Nan Goldin spoke of the paintings of Sean in her eulogy at Cain’s funeral as, “to my mind…his best…. For the first time he painted a person. Flesh replaced chrome, and the new work had an added dimension of vulnerability, tenderness, and emotional attachment. He painted Sean over and over based on a series of photographs he had taken of him on Valentine’s Day in 1994 in Key West, six months after they had met in Fort Lauderdale, where Sean was in a punk band. Like his cars, Peter rendered Sean in an extreme close-up. Close to the touch — the monumental boy as an icon. A love poem, American-style.”

Goldin recounts, “It was Sean who took Peter to the hospital. We all sat vigil for four days and nights as two families separate yet mutually respectful, each praying in their own ways for the recovery of their Peter. I will never forget those days in the hospital. His original family with their solidarity and loyalty in the face of terrible fear, and their warmth and openness to us even in their pain.”

Now, twenty years after his untimely death, Peter Cain returns to us in full splendor. His works seem even more revelatory is our temporal world of slick images crafted for appearances. They remind us to look, really look, as deep as we are willing for as the Romans knew, Ars longa, vita brevis (art is long, life is short).

Peter Cain. Sean Number Two, 1996. Oil on linen, 60 x 84 inches, 152 x 213 cm.

All artwork: © Peter Cain, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.