In Christopher Pelley’s paintings personal history intersects with the larger mythology of cultural legacy. It is this legacy that Pelley distills with his anecdotal imagery that references classical antiquity and myth as well as contemporary and personal iconography.
Stylistically, Pelley is in sync with a number of contemporary painters whose work is bombarded with diverse images reminiscent of collage. But the similarity ends there, for most of the “new collage” appropriates imagery from the blitzkrieg of media that dominates the visual world, and employs a photorealist style that is constant with its subject. Such is the voice of the emerging young generation tuned into the gestalt of its era. But Mr. Pelley is a mid-career artist whose point of reference is steeped in the cultural mythology of a collective past. His work reminds one of a fine aged port whose bouquet exudes a rich and resonant association to the profound nobility of classical literature, poetry and music.
Within this context, Pelley explores the psychological links between eras and concludes that although times change, people remain pretty much the same within the construct of their societies. It is the norms of behavior, the shenanigans if you will, of humankind that Pelley examines with thought provoking imagery. Take the base competitiveness of human nature. Pelley deals with this issue in a number of guises, but specifically in the bunches of grapes that appear continually in his canvases. In “Zeuxis and Parrhasius”, the referent is to the mythological mortals of the 4th century BC, who challenged each other to a contest in order to determine which of the two was the better painter. (With Pelley it pays to brush up on Greek mythology. Zeuxis lost even though the birds were fooled into pecking at his realistically painted grapes). Have things changed so much in a few thousand years? One glance at the contemporary art world and its myriad egos says it all.
Pelley’s work spans a formal range from non-objective to representational, and his technical skill is formidable. Representational passages are as skillfully rendered as those on any Renaissance masterpiece. From the luminous oranges of “Golden Apples” to a simple corrugated cardboard box lit and painted in such a manner as to elevate it from its humble status to the level of high art, Pelley intrigues the viewer.
The paintings are fun to interpret. their layered pentimento of images reflect even greater depths of meaning, especially those that incorporate Pelley’s signature motif – the humble found object that is omnipresent in many works, and that appears randomly on the scumbled, dripped and thoroughly contemporary grounds whose emphasis is on surface. The objects’ physical selves, which are tangible and have weight, are often combined with their own painted representations which are ephemeral illusions that fade into the background or that become obscured by succeeding layers of paint. We thus bear witness to the process of object dematerializing into ghost. Pelley forces the past and present to co-exist on the same plane, echoing the manner in which successive civilizations rise and fall on top of each other.
Christopher Pelley seamlessly melds traditional artistic sensibilities with post-modernist ones, and creates a unique world in which past, present, reality and illusion collide.
Joyce Korotkin is a Montclair, New Jersey based artist, writer and art critic.