Saturday, January 31, 2015

Fear of the Fragment

Recently the Metropolitan Museum unveiled the newly restored 15th century sculpture of  Adam by Tullio Lombardo.  It has taken 12 years of research and conservation since that afternoon in 2002 when the plywood base beneath the marble sculpture buckled and Adam toppled onto the floor sending hundreds of pieces careening in all directions.  Almost immediately the decision was made to restore the sculpture as closely as possible to its pre-impact appearance.  After the major and innumerable minor fragments were re-assembled, pinned and glued, there were still areas where the marble had been pulverized upon impact.  These gaps were filled with an acrylic based bulking materials.  The sculpture was then cleaned of excess acrylic and centuries of grime. He was a wonder to behold, but also left me wondering.  Are we seeing a major shift in he goals of restoration?

Up until the renaissance people didnt seem concerned about the past except in passing.  With the humanist shift to the here and now from the previous focus on the after-life, the past became an object of inquiry.  Trade in antiquities boomed as collectors competed for new finds gouged from the earth. Disappointment with fragments was remedied through artful "restoration".  These often fanciful reconstructions would frequently knit together disparate pieces to form a new, more pleasing completed piece.  Many noted sculptors, including Bernini, would be enlisted to carve the missing pieces.  Forward a few centuries later and the architect and engraver Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 - 1778) developed a different view.  He celebrated  the fragment as an embodiment of the past, whose reconstruction will always only be conjecture.  This notion was rapidly adopted by the Romantics a generation later with Friedrich Schlegel who postulated that the fragment was a gateway to the sublime.  We in the west have maintained that position...until now.  When the temple of Abu Simbel was rescued from the rising waters behind the Aswan Dam in 1968 and moved to higher ground, the seams from where the massive stone monument was cut could have been concealed when it was reassembled.  But they were not.  When Da Vinci's Last Supper was restored from 1978-1999 everything was removed that was not considered to be by the hand of Da Vinci, leaving only ghostly traces for contemporary viewers.

But has digital reconstruction imagery popularized by the History Channel shifted the way we want to see the past?  Has enhanced reality become more potent than the real?  Does the restoration of Tullio Lombardo's Adam and the ongoing reconstruction of the Parthenon, complete with filling of chipped sections of the column drums and lintels, re-carved missing sections all supported by modern materials signal the death of the Sublime?

Me?  I believe in the power of the fragment as interpretive memory.  I guess Im just Old Skool that way.

Christopher Pelley,  Piranesi  oil/canvas   75cm x 90cm

Christopher Pelley,  Antinoo (beloved)  oil/canvas  75cm x 90cm

Christopher Pelley,  Toga  oil/canvas  55cm x 50cm

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Learning from Lei Feng

Lei Feng (1940-1962) was a soldier in the Peoples Liberation Army, who, post-mortem, was singled out and promoted as a role model by no less than Mao Zedong himself.  His near mythic acts of selflessness (he darned his comrades' socks!  he sewed quilts for others!  he hauled heavy loads of manure!) earned him a feast day on the Chinese calendar.   March 5 is now known as Learn From Lei Feng Day.  The 5 months I was in Beijing, I learned that just about every one has a strong feeling about Lei Feng.  He is seen as either the uncomplaining young man who helped old ladies cross the street, or as a propaganda tool minted for the darkest times of recent Chinese history - the Cultural Revolution.  His cult has been revived in part to combat the excessive selfishness that has emerged with the get rich at any cost mentality.  Like any myth or legend, I believe he falls somewhere in between.

And like any myth or legend, there is an accumulation of imagery that is available to explore.  Inexplicably there are photos of Lei Feng worthy of a Hollywood studio.  High wattage light drenching the scene with hard cast shadows replaced earlier, humbler depictions of his actions.  But it is his cherubic face with his eyes gazing straight out that I zeroed in on.

The China of Lei Feng has changed beyond recognition; the analog has been superseded by the digital.  Thrift is ignored as consumerism is encouraged.  In the village of Shangyuan, about 30km  north of Beijing, I installed a hand painted lo-rez image of Lei Feng.  Each 'pixel' is a 4cm x 4cm square of painted paper. Confusing up close, Lei Feng is only seen from a distance.

Christopher Pelley,  Lei Feng From a Distance   2014

Everything is made in China and in quantities beyond comprehension, feeding the world's appetite for cheap goods and the domestic consumption of 1.4 billion people.  Who mends  a pair of socks today? This lo-rez image of Lei Feng was made from over 600 pairs.

Christopher Pelley,  He Darned His Comrades' Socks   2014
The propaganda department during the years of the Cultural Revolution wove the narrative of this fine young soldier's devotion to the welfare of others with his devotion to the words of Mao.  It was these years that saw the Great Leap Forward result in the deaths of millions of peasants as their farm implements were melted to satisfy iron production quotas set by the central government.  I began painting the image of Lei Feng on shovels.  When asked by a visiting guest if these works were political, I could only reply that all works and all decisions are in some way political.....

Christopher Pelley,  Shoveling Dung  2014

Every good hero dies at the end of the story.  Lei Feng was killed at age 22 when, while directing a fellow soldier backing up a truck, a telephone pole was struck and fell on our comrade. 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


There appears to be one growth industry in these post-economic downturn times.  Surveillance cameras.  They are everywhere - proliferating like cheap tourist souvenirs.  It seems that one cannot saunter down any strada without being watched.  But this is Roma, and have you ever really been able to move about unnoticed?  Whether it be gods or emperors, eyes have always been upon you, sometimes staring defiantly at you, sometimes just threatening to look your way.  The mute stones that populate this city have always watched.  

I have started my own street watch campaign, referencing this roman proclivity. 


Next time you take a stroll, try and count how many cameras, private and civil, are tracking you.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Analog in a Digital World

Within our lifetime, perhaps the greatest revolution in the way we communicate information since the invention of writing has occurred.  And this revolution has been seamless, all pervasive and universally embraced.  I'm talking about the shift to digital from analog.  My practice as an artist is firmly routed in the analog - I mean how much more analog can you get than smearing charcoal on paper.  Increasingly what interests me is what happens when the analog bumps up against the digital - the intersection of the accidental, imprecise and ephemeral with the clear logic of the binary.

The exhibition, A Brief History of Fashion, christopher pelley / recent drawings, currently up at Illinois Central College in East Peoria, Illinois explores this friction.  The drawing process begins with a digital photograph, which is cut up and projected onto separate sheets of paper. The outlines are traced, and each section is worked individually.  This process is not about understanding the whole, but rather trying to make sense of marks and shapes out of context. Each sheet is an information byte.  At the end, when the individual sheets are assembled, the result is not so much a competed photographic image, but rather an interpretive memory.  It is an approximation of the photo - it is understandable, but something doesn't quite add up. Something was lost in translation.

Christopher Pelley  TOGA  charcoal/paper  90" x 88"
Christopher Pelley  CARAVAGGIO  charcoal/paper  90" x 88"
Christopher Pelley  HOODIE  charcoal/paper  90" x 88"
As an aside, I subscribe to the theory that optical devices have played a role in the studio practice of many artists from the 15th century on - Caravaggio (1571-1610) included.  The image of Caravaggio's Boy Peeling Fruit (1592) that I have appropriated for this exhibition has always felt a bit awkward.  The boy's right sleeve appears disjointed, disconnected from the rest of the body.  I had a very difficult time working on that segment of the drawing.  The shapes I was drawing did not convey information to me.  It was only after I assembled the completed sections that I understood what I had drawn.  The boy's right arm is viewed from a point that is slightly different and slightly out of focus from the rest of his body.  Did I stumble upon tangible proof that Caravaggio used optics, at least for this early work?

The exhibition runs from March 19 to April 18, 2014 at the Performing Arts Center Gallery at Illinois Central College.

Monday, March 10, 2014


There are places that have been forgotten and then through some happenstance, rediscovered. Rome is full of such examples.  The Auditorium of Hadrian existed only in antique references, but recently has been discovered and identified during the dig for the new Metro Line C currently plowing underground through the Centro Storico.  And then in contrast there are those places that have persisted with an uncanny sense of continuity.

Isola Tiberina, high water from winter rain
The Isola Tiberina, a little lump of brick and stucco buildings that poke up from the river, is such a place.  Originally, it was not much more than a sandbar at a bend in the Tiber - a neglected place (except by criminals and unsavory types) until a catastrophe happened.  So often in history it takes a catastrophe to get things going, and in the case of the unfrequented Isola, the catastrophe came as a plague which swept through the city of Romulus in 293 BC.  A delegation was immediately dispatched to the sacred temple of Aesculapius, the god
of medicine and healing in Epidaurus, Greece, to seek help.  When the ship returned to Rome in 291 BC with one of the snakes sacred to Aesculapius as cargo, the precious cargo escaped and slithered away to the unsavory and uninhabited Island.  An Omen. Yes, an Omen.  When things don't go according to plan, it is an Omen.  

A temple to Aesculapius was built on that sand bar, and the island became a center of the healing arts.  In the 1st century BC, the sandbar was reshaped by a travertine embankment sculpted to look like a boat in honor of the origin of its mission.  After millenia of wear, Aesculapius and his snakes on the prow of the boat are still visible.  At the center of the Island, an obelisk was erected representing the mast of the ship.  Today, the obelisk is gone, replaced with a more christian monument.  Aesculapius' temple has been replaced by the church of San Bartolomeo,  who by association with this locale is now the patron saint of medicine and healing.   (The inscription on the facade of the church proudly proclaims that the body of St Bartolomeo the apostle "is here").  Opposite the former temple/ current church,  the island is dominated by a hospital of the Fatebenefratelli (the do-good brothers), founded in 1584, continuing the very ancient tradition of hospice and  healing the sick on this island.

travertine prow, Isola Tiburina, 1st century BC
detail, Aesculapius + snake, travertine prow
San Bartolomeo, Isola Tiberina

When I reach a point where things aren't going as planned, I mutter the word "Omen".  It was, after all, one of those slow moving catastrophes that seem to plague our lives that landed me here in Rome. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013


Piranesi  Carceri XIV
I'm crazy about Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the 18th century Italian engraver, archaeologist and architect (Venice 1720 - Rome 1788).  It is his late etchings of Carceri, or prisons that one most often associates him with today.  The frenetic line quality of Escher like spaces that border on madness and fantasy has catapulted his fame, but I am drawn to his earlier works, and his novel idea of the fragment.

Up until the 18th century, the idea of the fragment was disturbing.  The collectors who squabbled over pieces of sculpture that were being gouged out of the roman soil from the renaissance onward (more often than not in the preceding centuries marble fragments were burned to obtain the lime content to make mortar), were not content to merely display them 'as is'.  They were 'repaired'.  Very often  fragments were combined and reworked to make a new, tasteful piece, or contemporary sculptors (including Bernini) concocted  additions to replace missing parts.  My favorite roman museum, Palazzo Altemps, has excellent wall tags that illustrate the demarcation between the original and the later repairs to the sculptures in the collection.

Living in Rome, one becomes acutely aware of the idea of the fragment, and the role of conjecture in trying to make sense of the fragment.  Piranesi embraced this enigma to celebrate what was lost, or erased by time, in essence, treating fragments as an interpretive memory.  I too have come to embrace this view of Roma and the Antique World. 

Christopher Pelley  Capitoline Venus #4  acrylic/digital photo
Recent mixed media works on paper now at Front Art Space in New York, start with a photographic image, either one of sculptures I have photographed in Rome, or generic photos of classical sculptures.  Almost haphazardly, I take a brush and paint and begin to blot out large parts of the photo until only isolated fragments remain.  The resulting image lacks coherence and presents an altered view of the sculpture, forcing a certain amount of conjecture, whether correct or incorrect,  to complete the picture.    I believe Piranesi would have approved.

Christopher Pelley  Altemps #1  acrylic/digital photo
Christopher Pelley  Patroclus + Menelaus  acrylic/digital photo
Christopher Pelley  Altemps #4  acrylic/digital photo
Christopher Pelley  Altemps #2  acrylic/digital photo

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Antinoo @ Villa Albani

I stumbled upon the Villa Albani one twilight stroll out the Via Salaria.  I have since become obsessed with that Villa - those parterres glimpsed over a stone wall surmounted by iron bars and barbed wire and the faux 18th century ruins that have fallen into ruins themselves.  It is an isolated island of umbrella pines and cypress surrounded by an early 20th century residential district developed when much of the Villa's land was partitioned and sold.  One can feel the sadness of its history.  Cardinal Allessandro Albani (1692-1799), a passionate collector of antiquities, devoted his vast wealth to the construction the casino, gardens and dependencies to display his spectacular collection.  The Cardinal was assisted by Johann Winckelmann (1717-1768) in the arrangement and cataloging of his treasure trove.  It was here in 1764 that Winckelmann  penned  The History of  Art in Antiquity, a text which would become a touchstone of the neoclassical movement.  The Cardinal's passion ended up bankrupting him, his final days spent broke and blind.  Winkelmann succumbed to another passion - returning from a trip to Vienna, he was murdered by a bit of rough trade that he had invited back to his hotel room.

The decay of parts of the Villa is very real and palpable.  Just outside the estate's southern gates I installed a lo-rez image of Antinoo to serenely overlook this urban ruin.  The image of Antinoo, made from over1000 5cm x 5cm pieces of painted paper, is based upon a photo of the 2nd century AD bust of Antinoo at the  Museo Nazionale Romano / Palazzo Altemps.  Interestingly, the face of the marble was re-carved in the 18th century to reflect the new neoclassical aesthetic.

Christopher Pelley  Antinoo @ Villa Albani   2013

Christopher Pelley  Antinoo @ Villa Albani  2013

Christopher Pelley  Antinoo @ Villa Albani  2013
This project was installed on May 8, 2013, and with it, I felt I had paid homage to Villa Albani.  Here, like some sort of votive offering, I placed a 21st century interpretation of an image revered by the Cardinal and Winckelmann.