After our meetings in Rome, Italy, I have the good fortune to meet Christopher Pelley in China. He‘s in HangZhou for a project connected to an artist residency. I live in Shenzhen, but fortunately I have a commitment in SuZhou and Shanghai, which are quite close to Hangzhou, and it is easy for us to meet.
We also have to thank our friend Howard from Suzhou, who facilitated our movements with his car and made a meeting in HangZhou possible . Christopher, Howard and I also managed to visit together again in Shanghai. On our last evening in Shanghai, we went to Xintiandi, for a coffee and engaged in an informal conversation that touched on Pelley’s background, his personal views on art and other miscellaneous topics. With the artist’s permission I transcribed the interview, and here it is.
Marco Gobbo: So Chris, why do you paint? (laughing) No, no…sorry, lets start with something easier… why did you start painting? When did you start? Did you feel like having a kind of vocation to it? When you were a kid?
Christopher Pelley: I did not really start. I always did it. I was doing these things, drawing things. I did not think it was something like “painting”. Others kids may go play ball, or something… I was doing my thing, there was not a thought process behind this.
M.G.: Did you go to art school?
C. P.: I actually went to University. Because I am interested in a lot of other things, like history, languages,.. art school is just about, you know, arts… I was interested in a lot of other things
M.G.: Chris, I feel sometime that there is behind your painting somebody that is fascinating by human history, anthropology, human activities, languages… a kind of anthropologist.
C.P.:What do you mean with “anthropologist”?
M.G.:I mean somebody studying man, somebody fascinating by humanity and its declinations: history, feelings, cultures, languages, communications…
C.P.: I never thought it about it in that way, but yes, definitely
M.G.: For instance, when I see your project about sign languages, to me you could be a kind of linguist, translating your thoughts into an art form. Behind there is somebody into humankind.
C.P.: The work I do is about asking questions, like in Roman Laundry
M.G.: What is behind the Roman Laundry project?
C.P.: The concept came from everyday life; living in Rome, and you know, in Italian painting, there is always a lot of laundry around, and in the place where I live, Trastevere, people still hang out laundry, in some street the laundry lines go from building to building… so I started to draw the classical roman drapery, and hang them on this lines, and so doing making a connection, from an everyday life act, from past to present. I may say am more into human nature than painting, but I have a deep interest in 15th century Flemish painting. After I graduated from University I spent a lot of time seeing and visiting Flanders.
M.G.: Why 15th century Flemish art?
C.P.: I do not know… It resonates with me. What was interesting to me was a different way of seeing, a more naturalistic way to see the world, compared to Italian Quattrocento painting, where painters start to play with perspective, and mathematics, and rationalism, and formulas…but the Quattrocento painting in Flanders is more about the stare, the look , observation, Gothic naturalism, the interest in the natural world around them. 15th century Flemish art was more into the world around them. And this resonate with me.
M.G.: I see…you know that, digging in Italian art history, we are usually overwhelmed by Rome, Florence and Venice, and I agree with you. Quattrocento painting in Italy, in those areas, is very intellectual, but in Lombardy, painting was much closer to the Flanders sensibility, closer to the naturalistic world, but all this is like an under stream in Italian art history. In fact even the painting schools of the Venetian area are a bit undervalued, usually the so-called minor painters, very closed to the North Europe sensibility, are not so valued.
C.P.: Just because the most famous art historians of the XX century , like Bernard Berenson, have emphasized Italian art of Florence and Rome. But I would not say that Titian, a painter from Venice, is undervalued. (We laugh). You know Marco, I think is very interesting that oil painting is pretty much introduce from the Flemish to the Italians by Antonello da Messina, a man from Sicily.
M.G.: Oh yes, I found this almost weird, the man from Sicily introducing oil in Italy, in Venice actually, and Venice painters immediately picked it up, because oil is much more stable than fresco, considering the humidity there. (together M.G. And C. P.) :Because fresco fall off the wall!
C.P.:You know I was just thinking about what you said a few moments ago, you did use this word, “digging”…and “excavating”, I think that one of the turning points in my life when I was young , I was in the fourth grade, we had history class, and I was attending my first history class, and here I started to learn about areas in the world where they dig down and discover that they used to be cities over cities there… that fascinated me.
M.G.: I feel like we are like on the top of an onion, on the upper peel, on the layer outside, and underneath us layers and layers of this past, of history…
C.P.: Because you are Italian, you lived and grow up with vestiges of the past around you, but I grew up in an area where something that is one hundred years old is already ancient, historical.
M.G.: So when you started to be conscious about the fact that you were heading toward painting, that painting was your way, your medium, the way to express yourself, can you point out a moment, when all come together?
C.P.: I don’t think that I had an epiphany moment, I honestly cannot point to a moment… Painting was like something I did very early on, from when I was seventeen.
M.G.: Did you use immediately oil? Did you try other media, like acrylic, collage, watercolors?
C.P.: No, no, just oil, always oil.
M.G.: By the way, how is now in US? American Pop is the great moment when acrylic take center stage, what about now? There was a moment when most part of painters where using acrylic, acrylic was everywhere.
C.P.: Now is so fractured, I would say, 50-50 and honestly I will say that people still think that oil is the serious painting, like if that is the “real” painting technique. I also think that there is a complexity in oil, that acrylic does not have.
M.G.: So we can say that you have this vocation, I cannot think about another word, a better word. Did you feel that could be a career, a profession, I mean painting? I ask because I met other people who have this vocation, but then though better and safer to become a professional illustrator, or something different.
C.P.: I never asked myself this kind of questions… did I ever decided that this was a career choice, maybe I should not do it? No, no.
M.G.: Did you ever feel that would be easier if… doing something else?
C.P.: Yes, of course, of course. But I am really happy with the decision that I made.
M.G.: What makes you happy about the things you do, as a man using media artistically?
C.P.: I am excited about a project, the moment of its conception, and when I bring it to completion, and there are also other parts of a project that make me happy. Art is about communication so it is also when I put something out there, and I am happy about the response from people. I do not expect people to see my project the way I see it, but I am enjoying the feedback: sometime there is somebody saying “Oh yeah, yeah, I feel that, I feel the same about this” so you connect with other people, you generate connections, trigger feelings. That I find rewarding.
M.G.: You know earlier on I was commenting with Howard about your projects, like the one we saw on your website, “It’s our pleasure”. You did a painstaking work of cutting, reporting proportion, isolating details, focusing, showing them, like blowing out details that elude us during normal day life, and make people stop by and thing about. I though: a lot of artists nowadays have ideas, then they have other people actually carrying out the work about the idea, the concepts, so in a way they are detached from the execution of the work. Can you see this happening to you, for yourself?
C.P.: Actually, sometime it would be great to have some help, but ultimately I get satisfaction from the actual manual labor, the creation. For me it is the process that counts, through the process I learn something, I learn about myself, about the act of doing, I change from the initial concept to the final outcome, new ideas are coming while working on a project.
Like the project I recently did in China, using sign language to spell out the sentence “Harmonious Society”, the one that you saw. Originally I though about drawing the hands to spell out the sentence, but after connecting with the workers there, I felt the need to connect the sentence with the workers, and there was a big change: I had the idea not to draw the hands but to shoot photos of their hands, doing sign language, and this is a big change. And I think that the project worked out differently from my initial idea which was a bit more cynical. Now have a different prospective, it is more morally ambiguous.
Christopher Pelley, Installation, Hangzhou, “Harmonious Society” 2
M.G.: When did you start to express yourself with installations? What is behind them?
C.P.: The same that is behind my paintings: questions.
M.G.: You know that nowadays the general public is always puzzled by installations, these artworks are among the most difficult artworks to be understood. When they see installations a lot of people are really puzzled about it.
C.P.: It is because this is a new language. And this actually happen before in art history, with other languages and techniques. So many people are more at ease with older works, because the language used there is more familiar.
M.G.: Do you think that maybe this is a period where art is becoming, somehow, “intellectualized”, if I may use this term?
C.P.: Well if you think about science today and actually any other field of knowledge today, all of them use specialized languages. Think about astronomy, how many people can really understand their language?
M.G.: So it is up to the public to learn the new language of art, to translate the new and try to understand it, it is an evolution?
C.P.: It is also up to the artist to communicate the idea, and if the artist is not successful in communicating the idea, there is something wrong in the equation.
M.G.: Indeed, I feel sometime that artists are talking about themselves to themselves, a kind of solipsistic talk. How do you feel about all this “ism” in art, the post post modern… what they will think about this period in 50 years time?
C.P.: I was thinking about this today, going around Shanghai, wandering around and also seeing these new development projects, looking at these huge projects advertised on billboards…what are we going to think about this stuff in 50 years?
M.G.: I got the point, but to me it seems that this is a period where anything goes, isn’t it? I think this is the reality.
C.P.: I agree with you on this, and you can see that this is the same with architecture, looks like that anything goes.
M.G.: How do you feel about this? How do you relate with what we call “contemporary”?
C.P.: I try not to ask that question, I think this is something that somebody else should deal with. I am contemporary because I live in this time, I live and work now. So I do not enter that question.
M.G.: Looking at your artwork, it is immediately evident your deep interest in mythology and history. Was it always like this?
C.P.: Yes, indeed. It was always been like this. I realized quite early that there are images, a vocabulary out there, that has continued for centuries, recycled and re-used. It was funny for me to see villas build in the countryside in China using Roman and Greek classical style columns and pillars. I found it amusing, and interesting. It is also a demonstration of a vocabulary that is still viable among us.
M.G.: How is the art scene in New your right now, 2012, from your point of you? You are from there… do you feel much difference between East coast and West coast scene’s?
C.P.: I do not know much about the West coast, really…. I think there is a difference, Los Angeles is coming into its own.
New York used to be the magnet for young artists, but you know, the way that gentrification of an area first colonized by artists, in 4 or 5 years becomes something totally different. I guess that NY will become less and less the center of new, young art, but will remain the center of the very big, official art. A bit like in Beijing.
M.G.: Which is a bit what London is now, in a way. London is a kind of place where to show, to consecrate the new trends, the new currents, when they are established, at least in Europe.
C.P.: Now, touching back with what I was saying before about Shanghai… Why I like Shanghai and China? Because I feel that things are made here, there is this energy going around here… a sense of something happening, the perception of this energy around, I feel that New York is losing that.
M.G.: Now I want to tell you something about your work that maybe no one told you before, if you permit me so, a little digression before. To me New York means Graffiti, the start of the Graffiti as Art form… Graffiti became mainstream thanks to New York. Sometime, I feel, in front of your work, that I am in front of a Graffiti. To me, they are like Graffiti, of a special kind, of course.
M.G.: I feel that they are very… there is the same energy as in a Graffiti work. The drawing, the realistic parts of your works, the landscape, I could see that like if the were part of a wall, the landscape coming through the broken wall., a wall that you painted.. Maybe you never tough about this.
C.P.: No, really I never tough about it. That’s really interesting.
M.G.: You are, in my opinion, making works that are statements, and you are writing that on the “wall”, the special wall that are your canvas. You are not only “quoting” images from the past, you are not bringing back those images and make us think and focusing about the fact that are still much around us. No. My idea is that you are stating that they have always been there, they are always part of us. The way you represent them… some of your earliest critics wrote that you are creating neutral backgrounds, where these images and objects are like pulled together, represented on the same level… I see this clearly, at least in some of your works, and after a while I feel like that your canvases could be walls, and so I am not surprised that you are from New York. And when I see your works with your drawings, sign languages… well, this feeling is increasing.
C.P.: It is quite interesting that you feel that there is something coming from Graffiti art.
M.G.: I could see a Graffiti vocabulary as one of the possible sources of your art. So, yes, I was looking and watching again at your artworks, and I have this coming to my mind: it is not only a neutral background, that background really give the feeling that could be a wall, and on that wall, sometimes broken wall, there are these images, and graffiti, and my guess is that you did absorb this graffiti code, not intentionally, perhaps.
Some of your earlier works have much classical references, than there is a development where you are using also everyday objects.
C.P.: Yes, yes. I never thought about that before, but I can agree with that, I like that, it could be very true.
M.G.: Your artworks, in my opinion, are more contemporary, more post-modern, of what you may image. The background is perfect: for your special street language, a street language filtered by your mind, a mind which is conscious of art history and mythology, sensible to the call of past cultures. So, just to make an example, while Jean Michel Basquiat is rendering and filtering a world of violence, and rage, and drug culture… and Basquiat followed this route: from street graffiti on the wall goes on to paint on huge canvas, canvas that are mimesis of the street walls, as if the canvas is the wall, you may never did graffiti on a street’s wall, so I may say you skip that passage, but still your canvas are, to me, in their way, contemporary graffiti on a wall. You cannot be but from New York.
C.P.: May I tell you something? Did you know about the last project I did in Rome was called The Dante Project? If Dante was alive now, how would have gotten his poetry out there? I mean, he wrote in the common tongue, not in Latin, he was banished and excluded from the power structure, so I envisioned him as a graffiti artist, and I was doing lines of Dante as graffiti all around Rome.
(We are laughing)
M.G.: All right! So you see, you have in you this graffiti.
C.P.: I ended up taking over political posters. I wrote some phrases, one of them was: “Vieni a vedere la tua Roma che piange”, and I pasted them on the political posters.
M.G.: So if I ever be your curator, choosing your works, or curating a show for you, I would not hesitate to talk about this, this graffiti part of your language, that maybe you were not aware.
C.P.: Not at all, not at all, and it is funny how you just connected the dots that I did not even know existed.
M.G.: It is part of me. I, in a way, try to be the artist, the author of the artworks I look at. So that’s what I did. I keep on analyzing things, and putting things together, I have to say. it is a constant for me, for my mental processes. So, you do not just put images or objects on a neutral background, you are writing your statements on this ideal wall, your canvas, so I find your works fascinating and modern. Sometime they have this riddle, rebus like quality, as you are inviting the audience to guess ulterior meanings.
C.P.: Is this not part of much part of Italian art as well? The idea of the riddle, the idea of inquiring, to understand what is going on?
M.G.: Actually it is, yes, and it is actually part of China tradition as well, because here in China a landscape it is never only a landscape. And your painting has this quality, this open invitation to the onlooker to inquiry, to see what is behind that. A lot of your critics are mentioning your undiscussed qualities as a painter “painter”, and I mean the technical qualities,
C.P.: I do not think that is the gist of what I am doing.
M.G.: Sure. I feel you are more inviting your audience to solve a puzzle. I can image all your works together, like pages of a book, a book that is inviting the reader to decode something, something that is very private, your life, your thoughts, and something else that is sharable by the viewer, inviting to see this game between past and present, and all of this on your canvas, that are just like graffiti on the wall. In your very polished way, you do your graffiti.
May I ask you when you went to Rome the first time? You spend a lot of time there now. What about the first time, what about now?
C.P.:The first time I went to Rome was 1979, just out of college. I was just amazed. And I went back there, maybe ten times and kept saying I really want to live here – I do not want to be just a tourist, and then I was offered a job as a teacher.
The first time in Rome, you know, you are confronted with… let me think about a good analogy, it’s like opening a blast furnace, all the heat is coming to you, stunning you, it all looks mono dimensional.
Now I try to understand how the city works, it is like to having a conversation with the city, the city is growing on me. I do not see it like a tourist, but I am also not a roman, so I can look at it in a detached way, as an outsider. And I show the Romans details and reflections of their city that they simply do not see. Sometimes they just think that what I am doing is hysterically funny.
M.G.: Did you ever think to make videos? After seeing your installations, I though you may well move toward videos.
C.P.: I started doing video. I am using photography and videos more and more to express myself.
M.G.: And… any project yet?
C.P.: Oh yeah. You know the way I like to try to build up a sense of layering and density in my paintings? Well, a construction site has piles of rubble and stuff, and all these tiny little bits and pieces of poking out are really beautiful. I thought this is like the new Chinese landscape, this sense of buildings leveled into other buildings.
M.G.: How do you see this new digital world that’s coming. In which way technology will affect the way you express yourself?
C.P.: Well, it is already here. It is a time of change. How so we use the technologies, how do we incorporate them in our work? This is one of those moment in history where we really change the way we exchange information. By taking a digital image, and then painting each pixel, to try to take the kind of analog old way of doing, and apply the new way. The idea is to take something old, organic, spontaneous and imprecise and overlay it on something that is extremely precise.
M.G.: I read in your biography that you were moving a lot around Europe, and how come you end up in Rome? Not Paris, for instance. Doing your job. Is it because it suit you best?
C.P.: I think that the Universe work in a way that you want something, and you put them there and you get what you want. Really. I lived in Paris for a while, then I stayed in Rome.
M.G.: What are the main differences between Paris and Rome? You know, Paris is one of the special cities in Europe for Italians, together with Barcelona and London, by sure, and I may add Amsterdam
C.P.: Oh… so many, so many…too many differences. I may say that to me Paris was the Medieval, the Gothic, but Rome has this sense of an almost unbelievable antiquity.
What I like living in Rome, is that life happen around you. In New York everything is a destination. You go somewhere for something. In Rome, everything happens around you, life looks so seamless, do you want a coffee, there is the bar, need to meet somebody? The piazza is just here… The church I attend, when I am in Rome, is a church from the 12th century., just to give an example.
M.G.: What about the relations with history and mythology, after becoming half a roman citizen?
C.P.: Just reinforced. With more questions about why some images last, why others do not, why we keep on reading the same stories? Because they are telling us something about ourselves, time after time that every generations can understand and reinterpret and make them their own.
A thread between past and present. Think about China. Now there are generations of young that grow without uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters, in a country where family values are so, historically, important. This is a new phenomenon in history. This generations, in a way, will lose that thread. What is going to happen?
Coming to China, I have to say that I start to see the layers , and I start to soften the negative feelings inside my heart, realizing how difficult is for the people to deal with a such centralized government. You are in a place, in a building, and tomorrow everything may be gone. I met a gardener while at the residency. He planted such a beautiful garden at the edge of the construction site, but I fear they will bulldoze everything before the crops mature.
M.G.: You know Chris, I feel China is changing fast, in many aspects. I came to China in 2006, and at that time I could feel a huge sense of optimism around me, especially in Shenzhen. People were working hard, but in a way glad to work so hard, with really the idea that all was going to be fine. The tip of this was the Olympic games. After August 2008, a few months the mood start to change. People start to act differently, maybe the crisis, but I suspect much more than that, anyway that common sense of almost over-optimist is gone.
C.P.: I guess is a matter of economics. The first ten years of mega growth in China, the lives of almost 40% of the people improved. In the past 10 years, only around 10% saw changes. Much of the growth continues for those who have. The growth is uneven. When I start the project about Harmonious Society I started off with great cynicism, but then I start to develop an affection for the workers, I wanted to include them in the project. These people are treated poorly, but they are the ones building the New China.
M.G.: Well we have Shenzhen, a city totally built by them.
C.P.: What can I say about the exponential developement? You know, I lived in Phoenix and every place that I lived in, including the college dormitory, has been destroyed. Everything is gone. I go back, I no longer have any connections. So I kind understand what is going one here in China, but here it is happening on an enormous scale.
M.G.: So, Chris, here in China, all that you have come across so far, do you feel it is giving you artistic inputs?
C.P.: Oh yes, that’s why I love so much here. I have come up with a lot of new ideas; I grew a lot here.
M.G.: Yes, sure.
C.P.: There are also barriers. Some of the artists at the residency were prevented from taking photos around where we were. You are so controlled here – including being stopped and questioned because you are taking pictures of buildings that are about to be torn down. Then there is the internet censorship. One of the news items that was blocked for me was about a storm in New York, maybe because the key words triggered a connection with the flooding in Beijing this summer.
M.G.: Christopher, I really think that differences about people around the world are much less of what our upbringing are leading us to believe I believe that underneath our cultural education and “training”, people are much more similar.
C.P.: I agree. This is one of the things I like to talk about – about the continuity of the past, and how the past really exert such a big influence on the present, and yet we always deny this.
M.G.: I believe that most part of us do not even realize this, we are not even aware about it.
C.P.: Yes, we like to believe that we are so “modern”, all over the world. And this is what interesting about China: China is just saying, right now,: we are modern, we have the bullet train, we are building these massive skyscrapers. The images that China tries to project are images of new, modern cities… but in the complex where I was living outside of HangZhou, they are some buildings that are completed, but not yet occupied. They are sealed up. But the caretakers, around the property have recreated a kind of village, just beside the big new classy building – a sense of continuing a life they know. Funny, I just made a mental connection between this “cohabitation” of the modern glass building and the traditional village with prints I have seen of medieval buildings sprouting around and incorporating monumental Roman imperial buildings.
M.G.: Do you think that there is a need to be reminded of the past?
C.P.: I think we do, I think we do, I think we do not acknowledge it.
M.G.: Christopher, I really thank you for your time and your views and opinions, letting us understand better the man behind the works.
C.P.: My pleasure Marco, thank you for your interests, and your views too.
Christopher Pelley: History is Now
Marco Maurizio Gobbo
(Interview with the artist Christopher Pelley, in Shanghai, September 2012)
Marco Maurizio Gobbo is originally from Milano, Italy and now lives and works in ShenZen, China. He recently launched "The Making - Art Management" with the goal of building a network of artists and arts institutions for the joint creation of special projects bridging peoples and cultures.