Richly painted and abundant with metaphoric imagery, the works of East coast artist Christopher Pelley are not only aesthetically pleasing, but intellectually complex. Clever clues tease the viewer to decipher the meaning of his paintings, but equal pleasure can be achieved by simply giving in to the richness of his colors and patterning, the lusciousness of his still lifes, and the emotional content of his landscapes, often all wrapped up into one dynamic composition.
The most pervasive of Pelley’s themes reference classical Greek mythology or emulate Renaissance perspective and subject matter as a way of visualizing the intersection of private experience with the larger western cultural tradition. These themes and stories, reinterpreted through the artist’s own personal existence, place the artist and his life into a larger mythological construct. But mythology and the Renaissance are only parts of Pelley’s pastiche of influences and references. His positioning of highly realistic imagery floating in washes of color and bold applications of abstract brushwork bring to mind the pop artist Larry Rivers, and his occasional use of found objects as a focal point amid drips of brilliant color conjures a relationship to the works of Robert Rauschenberg. Likewise, the isolated, almost free-floating positioning of objects in Pelley’s still lifes are reminiscent of San Francisco Bay Area artist, Paul Wonner and New Yorker Fred Tomaselli. His use of text on deep colored ground bears traces of another Bay Area artist Raymond Saunders, and his occasional use of trompe l’oeil tape techniques harkens back to the work of John F. Peto. Pelley does not appropriate (he never uses photography or pre-printed collaged elements), but blends images, styles, and eras in pure Postmodern fashion to create his own unique approach to personal narrative and myth.
The layering of painted images and abstraction is as important to Pelley’s process of building a painting as it is to the overall visual effect of hidden mysteries, clues to unlock the secret of the narrative. In Nature Morte, 2000, for instance, the artist carefully positions lush fruit in an exquisitely rendered silver urn with a branch of green leaves floating in front of a backdrop of geometric patterning reminiscent of the tile work found in Italian villas. Within the patterning, the illusion of an empty niche strikes a poignant cord among the opulence of the rest of the scene. Drips and washes of paint break up the tight reality of the composition, as if to infer the idea of aging or deterioration. A magnificent skyscape of illuminated, ethereal clouds occupies the top half of the composition. Here the message seems clear—nature is imbued with the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth; the empty niche is a reflection on the solitude of the artist.
In the more recent Vesuvio, 2004, the passions of man are represented by the powerful eruption of a volcano in a tumultuous sky in washes of deep reds, glowing yellows, and rich greens—the word “vesuvio” printed in chalkboard fashion in white across the red ground. Crossed sticks, arranged in simple Boy Scout style, reveal small, smoldering embers reinforced by the faint trail of smoke rising up to the volcanic landscape above. Pelley’s signature geometric patterning anchors the composition, while a blue silk ribbon drapes snake-like over a leafless branch, floating in front of an opulent cluster of red grapes and pomegranates, one sliced open to reveal its juicy interior. A surreal quality of floating images (most tellingly, the small white outline of a nude male with erect phallus) among translucent washes of color, thick applications of paint, fluid drips, and sublime landscapes create the visual embodiment of dreams and desires.
While Pelley’s work is about the history of painting and the painting tradition, what ultimately drives the work is his use of Greek and Roman myths and legends as narratives that express the artist’s personal relationships and contemporary society in general. An aficionado of mythology since he was a child, Pelley’s allegorical subject matter references such timeless stories as Daedelus and Icarus, Zeuxis and Parrhasius, the Labyrinth, and the Judgement of Paris, resulting in a lexicon of images that reoccur throughout his work over time. The pentimento of images rife with multiple layers of meaning speak about the continuum of human behavior that has not changed over the millennia.
Pelley fills the picture plane with luscious, ripe plums, pears, apples, and grapes in Zeuxis and Parrahasius, 2004, a painting depicting the story of the contest between the two artists of Ephesus from the fifth century B.C. The legend, reported by Pliny the Elder, describes Zeuxis’s painting of grapes as so realistic that birds flew down to peck at them. When the jubilant artist then asked Parrhasius to remove the curtain from his painting, he found it to be the painting itself, and admitted defeat. However, Pelley masterfully executes both fruit and drape, overlaid with a stylized image of a bird and his omnipresent blue satin ribbon. While the drips, washes, geometric patterning, and trompe l’oeil effects are quintessential Pelley devices, they are as much a visual delight as a means to an end. Here the viewer can deduce that the contemporary artist has joined the contest between the two ancient painters, proving that he too is a viable artist worthy of recognition and acclaim, perhaps a statement about the competitive nature of the New York art scene and the politics inherent in it.
Perhaps more enigmatic is Golden Apples/Judgement of Paris, 1999. In this oil on linen work, Pelly positions fruit, a gleaming silver pitcher, rusty machine parts, and a leafy branch amid a rich color field of blue and his familiar geometric patterning. A white linear outline of three women depict the three goddesses—Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite—contenders for the golden apple offered by Eris “for the fairest.” Paris, given the task of judging the three, takes Hera’s bribe—the love of Helen of Troy, which supposedly sparked the Trojan War. Pelley’s message may be as veiled as his paintings in this work, but commentaries on vanity, deceit, and desire are abundant here. This painting typifies the artist who, as critic Joyce Korotkin declares, “seamlessly melds traditional artistic sensibilities with post-modernist ones, and creates a unique world in which past, present, reality and illusion collide.”
Noticeable changes have occurred in Pelley’s recent work, including brighter colors and the addition of more contemporary objects. While the effects of the patina of age still persist in his works, now the artist confidently places his objects isolated in the center of the composition or fills the whole picture plane with abundant nature. Impacted by his surroundings, the artist explains this shift in his palette: “The higher key of my color scheme can be attributed to a new, brighter studio. My earlier works were painted in a studio in the back of a building in New York, which faced another building. Now my studio is in an old garment factory on the tenth floor with a lot more light. It was natural that my work would reflect my new environment.” Such a change from old to new, from closed in to opened up, and from dark to light have served the artist well.
Christopher Pelley’s love of ancient myth combined with his dexterity in rendering objects in precise detail amid bold abstraction result in paintings that are thought-provoking commentaries on cultural consciousness and artistic legacy. Viewers, enticed to revel in the paint surface and to understand the meaning behind his mythological icons, are compelled to find contemporary correlations within their own lives and the society in which they live. Meaningful relevance and visual triumph merge in his paintings that celebrate the past, reflect on the present, and honor the tradition that is art.
The Paintings of Christopher Pelley
Christopher Pelley, artist’s statement, 2002.
Michael Paglia, “Different Realities: Realism Gets a Vigorous Workout at Robischon.” 10 April 2003, Denver Westword, np.
Jeanette Alt, “Christopher Pelley,” February 2000, Santa Fean, 63.
Joyce Korotkin, “Greco/Roman,” NY Arts, vol. 4, #12.
Christopher Pelley, telephone conversation with author, May 5, 2005.
Julie Sasse is the Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Tucson Museum of Art, Tucson AZ