Artu Peatoo: Two artists find creative freedom by working as one

Artists Robyn and Richard Penn's collaboration has allowed them to step away from their signature styles and experiment

06 September 2020 - 12:00 By Paula Andropoulos
'Matisse visiting the museum in the rain' by Artu Peatoo.
'Matisse visiting the museum in the rain' by Artu Peatoo.
Image: Supplied

Jeff Koons: balloon dog. Louise Bourgeois: big spider. Fame is a flashcard game, and, more often than not, an artist's public persona is tantamount to the piece or collection that earned them a place in the public lexicon.

For many creatives, it's an unspoken truth that the blessing of popularity also fosters a kind of stagnation. Repetition is, after all, essential to recognition, and we require a degree of thematic or stylistic consistency from visual artists in particular because, if they're lucky, their affiliation with that breakthrough work becomes their most important currency. Needless to say, this can be restrictive.

Artu Peatoo is first and foremost a foil to this. The avatar-conjunction of South Africa-born artists Robyn and Richard Penn, Artu Peatoo is a collaborative venture that's empowered them each to diverge from their signature styles and modalities.

"As artists, you get penned into an identity by the galleries and by the market, and so most artists end up on one track," Richard says. "It's good in some ways, but we decided that there were other things we were interested in - different ways of working."

The evolution of the Artu Peatoo persona is particularly exciting from a consumer's perspective because, while they're married, Robyn Penn and Richard Penn are very distinct artists in terms of their offerings.

Robyn, who's predominantly a painter and printmaker, is best known for her renderings of volatile natural phenomena: glaciers, seafoam, and a spectrum of clouds laden with the gravity of climate change.

Richard is a multidisciplinary artist who celebrates the confluence of science and mystery through a range of media, including sculpture, painting, drawing and ceramics.

But, "although our works are so different, in terms of the way we work, and what we make, there's often a cross-over. It's subtle, but we have similar interests, and I think this was in the air when we went to New York," says Robyn.

Richard and Robyn were both awarded the Ampersand Fellowship, a New York residency that doesn't require artists to produce anything in exchange for their month-long stay in the city. They went together in 2014, and had the time and the licence to act on what must have been some latent co-operative impulse; they left behind their first piece as the Artu Peatoo alliance.

"We have three rules as Artu Peatoo," they say. "We don't discuss what we're going to do, or disclose which of us did what. We're allowed to draw over one another's work; and we're not allowed to get upset."

'Sketch for Fish and Bird #2' by Artu Peatoo.
'Sketch for Fish and Bird #2' by Artu Peatoo.
Image: Supplied

Over the course of the lockdown, faced with downtime at home, the self-professed "work-addicts" revived the Artu Peatoo character recreationally, working together-apart at their dining room table. They marketed some of what they made on Instagram, and the popularity of Artu Peatoo's work prompted them to format a collection of digital prints - 20 box sets of 20 drawings.

The playfulness at the heart of the project inheres in Artu's name, which I love taking apart and putting back together: the artists' identities are hinted at, obviously, but it's also art x 2; or, are you P, too? Artu Peatoo could be a droid, or R2P2, an inscrutable formula.

Robyn likens their productions to "an exquisite corpse, something that gets handed from one person to another. Sometimes a work gets stolen - I'm working on something, leave, come back, and Richard's working on it; or one of us hits a dead end - you do something, and because you haven't really planned what's going to happen, you don't know where to go next, but the other person can see it, and takes it in a new direction."

The pair also often operate within a "circular economy", incorporating their rejects or test pieces and slicing or overlaying them to create something new.

Richard says that the unifying feature underlying the collection as a whole is the "composite feeling" that arises from their spontaneous methodology. "Each work is like a collage, built up of many images. That's the one thing that runs through all the works, irrespective of what the imagery is; complex layers which unite 90% of the work in this collection."

Some of the sketches, however, patently don't quite belong, and that's more or less the point. Artu Peatoo's Lockdown Project evinces equal parts fixation and radical departure.

"Normally, if you're the artist who does clouds, or the artist who does small ink drawings, it's difficult to suddenly start making erotic Japanese Shunga-inspired work, or political work, because you confuse your audience," the Penns conclude.

See Artu Peatoo on Instagram; online here. Robyn Penn's 'Hopes and Dreams - Part III' will exhibit digitally at Barnard Gallery from September 29.