Monday, October 10, 2011

It's Our Pleasure to Serve You (video)

The iconic blue and white NYC take out coffee cup was the focus of  'It's Our Pleasure to Serve You' - an installation I did at the Vizivarosi Gallery in Budapest in June 2010.  On one side of the coffee cup the discobolus is featured prominently, his nudity now covered by some sort of gladiatorial skirt.  I am fascinated that an image of a sculpture created in the 5th century BC has remained in our visual vocabulary.  (The original bronze by Myron has long been lost, but a plethora of marble  copies in various states of repair still exist). 

I chose to re-interpret this image in a vocabulary unavailable to the not so distant past, but is now commonplace - a lo rez digital breakdown.  By hand painting each square, or digital unit, I have tried to re-assert a sense of the organic and unpredictable into something that usually resides in the realm of  mathematics.  Here is a video of the project (digital, of course)

Thursday, August 18, 2011

ANTINOO (lost youth)

Christopher Pelley   ANTINOO (lost youth)   installation August 2011

Antinous.  The beautiful Bythinian youth and Emperor Hadrian's "beloved" (euphemism) drowned in the Nile in the year 130 AD at the age of 19.  Hadrian had him deified, had temples constructed in his honor across the empire and even built the Antinoeion, a complex of buildings and pools complete with an obelisk at his villa near modern Tivoli to enshrine the memory of this lost youth.
The image of Antinous fascinates me.  So after much looking at it, I began to deconstruct it.  This installation is a super lo-rez image of a bust of the 19 year old at Palazzo Altemps (Museo Nazionale Romano) in Rome.  The sculpture in itself is interesting merely by the fact that it was carved in the second century AD, then heavily "restored" (read re-carved) in the 18th century.  It now presents itself as the classical ideal of beauty as seen through 18th century eyes.   I have tried to interpret this singular bust from a 21st century perspective.  Each pixel of my lo-rez image is a 5cm x 5cm square of painted paper.

But why the resonance?  Why has this image continued to endure through the centuries while so many others have been neglected or forgotten?

Entering as I am into that period of life generously called middle age (another euphemism), I realize now that youth is something to be appreciated (like the lo-rez image) from a distance.

Christopher Pelley   ANTINOO (lost youth)  detail

Monday, July 11, 2011


Typography. The shape of letters help define an age. The perfect alignment and spacing of the majiscule of antique inscriptions, the increasingly huddled form of the late antique, and the expressive curves of the longobard gothic… They give us sense of time and place. There is nothing like standing in front of an imperial inscription of the first century. One feels the entire weight of empire behind it. There is an instinctive cowering when one attempts to read it.

Then there are a range of quasi-contemporary (very contemporary if you are looking at the breadth of the historical record here) shop signs in an orthography that one can only described as felliniesque. Only here in Roma have I seen these fonts. There is a joyfulness about them that can often mask the drama going on behind the shop fa├žade. I stop and smile.  Is that a Nino Rotta soundtrack I hear playing in the background?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

It's Elemental

The 4 elements.  They are basic, and well, elemental, and often overlooked today.  But sometimes its fun just to wander and watch them in action.  Here they are as I viewed them over a couple of afternoons - roman style.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Roman Laundry (the video)

Sometimes, it's good to see things in motion. The installation 'Roman Laundry (bucato alla romana)' took place on a sunny afternoon in May, 2011.  Still photography by Susan Kammerer, Kara Arterburn and Katie Morgan.  I shot the video footage.  You can hear my (barely)supressed voice saying "this is soo cool".

Friday, May 20, 2011

Roman Laundry (bucato alla romana)

Myth and Memory, History and Nostalgia, Dreams and Disappointments, I have hung them all up to dry in the afternoon Italian sun.

A temporary installation of Roman Laundry  (bucato alla romana), a group of large scale charcoal drawings that reference classical sculpture, which I have been working on over  past several months, took place on Sunday May 1, 2011 in Via de' Delfini, Roma. 

By its nature, intruding into public space invites public comment.  Without permission, I took over a street and asserted myself.  The comments were many.  The one that struck me the most was made by an Italian artist who said that in the work he can see my affection for the City.  Si, e vero.  I have great affection for this chaotic, frustrating, romantic, amazing, impeneterable and impossible place.

And a special THANKS to all who helped make this project happen!

Christopher Pelley with assistants Amanda Pratt, Katie Morgan, Kara Arterburn and Codi Lyn Harrington

Monday, May 2, 2011

Fade to Pale

I first ventured to Rome in the waning days of the 1970's.  The city then was awash with a riot of warm colors. The burnt oranges and ochres, rich and worn, glowed and amplified the late afternoon sun until it seemed that for a few magical moments before sunset, heaven and earth were ablaze in tandem. The maze of medieval streets in the centro storico flowed like liquid amber pouring into renaissance piazzas.  But even then I noticed that change was afoot.  The backround beat of the chip chip chip of cold steel chiseling against soft stucco and hard stone that makes up the baso continuo of the city was slowly peeling away the color and replacing it with a different historical palette.  The renaissance palazzos were being re-invisioned with a more correct color scheme.  Creams, soft whites and even limestone blues were thrusting themselves into the streetscape.

The pace has quickened in the past few years as the City continues its relentless shift from warm to cool.  Color, which once stitched together the City is now defining and seperating the social strata.  Palazzi and cheisi increasingly boast the new renaissance hues, the medieval jumble for the most part sits in begnine neglect, plaster more often than not crumbling to expose the brick and rubble construction.  The massive number of 19th century buildings which sprung into existence when the City was recreated as the capital of a unified Italy, along with the monumental public works executed to define the City as such, linger in a chromatic no-man's land.  Too young to qualify for the renaissance option, but not wanting to remain old school, a variety of solutions have developed.  Pale has become the new saturated color.  And even worse, pastel.   

Sometimes a cheap version of sponge painting popular in suburban McMansions of the late 1980's is applied to disguise that momentary regret and sense that something has been lost as the past is scraped away from these edifices and they lurch into the future.

Every once in awhile, though, you will find that rare Palazzetto, which like Miss Havisham's, proudly wears the remains of a fully saturated red ochre as a badge of honor from some ancienne regime.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

More Drawing, More Laundry

Somewhere in that space between myth and memory, history and nostalgia lies the potential of the ordinary.  My work in general, and these large scale drawings in specific, explore the possibilities of the quotidien.  What could be more persistent than laundry put out to dry?  So I hung them out the window alla romana.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


view of the Palatine hill from the Circus Maximus
Thursday, April 21 marked the 2764th anniversary of the founding of Roma (if your not quick at math, that makes it 753 BC),  so over the weekend I made a pilgrimage to the supposed spot of the Romulean hut on the Palatine.  It isnt much to look at now, just a few tufa blocks scattered about which belong to the infrastructure of a temple of the 2nd century BC that partially obscure a bit of bedrock with a few holes in it from the 8th century BC.  But a  simple reed hut stood for over a thousand years, anchored in those holes, tended by priests who patched and repaired with care the reeds as the city expanded from the modest pomerium of Romulus to the marble faced concrete heart of empire.
Pomerium.  The sacred boundary of the City laid out by Romulus, original dimensions marked by cippi, or boundary stones, circumnavigated the Palatine.  Romulus killed his twin Remus for violating the pomerium.  The pomerium is not the same as the city walls, which are military in function, though they may have run in tandem.  The pomerium is sacred and religious in function.  It is a reflection of the divine cosmos on earth, laid out through augury and divination.  I stood there for a good bit staring at those little holes, thinking about the sacred and the divine, and how today our urban planning is strictly financial (and political).  Tourist came and went, believing there wasnt anything to see (the little sign that says house of Romulus in fake latin script is obsured by dirt)

8th century BC holes upper center 
The hut dissapeared sometime in the late 4th century AD, like so many other things ancient and vulnerable.  The last games in the Colosseum were held in 404 AD.  The past was  replaced by a new order and a newish concept of the divine which was not associated with the earth, but resided in its entirety elsewhere.

Saturday, March 26, 2011


A wall in Roma is never just a wall - life here isnt that simple. A wall is so much more than a wall - it is a conversation between the centuries.  The brown grey volcanic tufa favored during the republican period, brick and marble of the imperial epoch, the rubble of the late antique and middle ages, the applied fantasies of the baroque and then brick again with travertine from the Fascist era form a sort of haphazard stratigraphy .  The scars of hopes, desires, tastes and trends are etched on the surface for all to see - if you choose to look.  Doorways and windows have come and gone.  A fragment of a gothic arch, traced only by an outline of brick, pushed aside for a more modern intervention sits on top of a truly robust roman arch.  The walls endure and adapt like so much aluvium piled high.  Here, the erasure of time hasnt fully succeded. 

Sometimes I stand silently nearby and try to listen to the conversation.

Monday, March 7, 2011

St Valentine

It is mid February, and I stumbled upon the earthly remains of a Saint Valentine in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin here in Roma.  I wondered if it was him.  I started to search and found out that there were at least 3 (and possibly as many as 14) St Valentines with remains in reliquaries across Europe.  The legend of the St Valentine - the focal point of our annual Hallmark hysteria, (which is totally absent here in Rome... I guess when you are surrounded by putti and erotes 24/7 you dont feel the need to hang red paper ones on February 14), is mired in the murkiness of legend and myth.  He was actually removed from the official Catholic Calendar of Saints back in 1969.  Valentine's feast day was originally placed on that Calendar by Pope Galasius I in 496 to supersede the suppressed festival of Lupercalia.

Lupercalia?  OK, my interest was piqued.  Could this have anything to do with Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome?  The Lupercal was, after all, the sacred spot marking the cave where the twins were suckled by the she-wolf.  The short answer is yes.  But by the late 5th century AD, Lupercalia probably had about as much to do with Romulus and Remus and Rome as Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Rio de Janiero has to do with Lent.  Digging deeper (and a few more google searches)  I found that the festival of the Lupercalia originally involved a sacrifice of 2 goats and a dog, then 2 young men, annointed, wearing the skins of said goats ran around the Palatine hill, tracing the original walls of the city, ceremoniously striking bystanders (esp women and girls) with strips of goat skin (also from the above mentioned goats) called februa.  The meaning of all this is up for discussion.  Naked young men in goatskin loincloths aside, was it a purification ritual?  A fertility rite?  A commemoration of the founding of the city of Rome?  A celebration of the civilising force (control) of the City over a  hunter-gatherer society?  Some, or all of the above?  Nobody really knows.

In the end, I returned to Santa Maria in Cosmedin and lit a candle in front of that box of bones.  (When in Rome...).  I'm a sucker for a good myth.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Spolia.  I love the stuff.  Originally the latin term meant war booty or plunder, but in architectural terms it has come to mean the reuse of older building material.  It is everywhere in Rome.  Those mis-matched columns and capitals lining the naves of medieval basilicas came from an array of imperial era buildings.  That fountain basin was once a 2nd century AD sarcophagus.  The marble for the late 17th century fountain of the Acqua Paola on the Janiculum came from the Temple of Minerva that was in the Foro of Nerva.  Often while walking I will see an ionic volute, or a bit of  architrave in white marble peeking out amongst the other bits of rubble in a wall of unknown date.  For me it is myth and mystery made manifest.  How can I not be influenced?

Christopher Pelley "Volutes"  oil/canvas  100cm x120cm  2010

Christopher Pelley  "Ionic Volutes"  oil/canvas  100cm x 100cm  2010

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Mixed Feelings in NYC

Back in NYC this fall, it was very much about the upcoming 10th anniversary of 9/11 next year.  Has it been that long?  The gaping hole in the skyline is starting to be filled, but the memories and emotions are still fresh and raw.  Returning from Rome, I had to confront mixed feelings.  When in Rome, one always sees women from a variety of Catholic religious orders on the streets, their veils flowing as they jostle among the crowds.  It makes me smile; my heart is flooded with remembrances of parochial grade school.  Back in my Jackson Heights neighborhood in New York, I was shocked to witness the statistically significant uptick in the number of girls wearing the hijab and women in full burkas.  There is a shift in the 'hood.  Ganesha is giving way to the Quaran.  I was surprised by my reaction of shock mixed with a twinge of fear.  Why?  It's only drapery. 
Christopher Pelley  "Hijab"  oil/canvas  60"x66"  2010

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Roman Laundry

Laundry hanging out over the street, so much the italian cliche....  Maybe more reality than cliche, celebrated in paintings from Canaletto and Tintoretto on down through 19th century genre scenes, it just comes with the scenery. 

While in Rome, I find that I do a lot of drawing; not just carry the sketch pad around sort of thing, though I do do that, but also working in larger scale formats.  Laundry and drapery is ubiquitious here.  I love looking at drapery on antique marble fragments - it still feels so fresh, hanging off two thousand year old toned bodies, or blown by a long ago invisible wind.  I began doing drawings of them on the kitchen floor, and hanging them up on my clothesline.

Christopher Pelley   "Roman Laundry"   dimensions variable

Friday, January 21, 2011

It's Our Pleasure to Serve You

june - july 2010

I moved to New York 20 years ago, and I have lived in and been fascinated by this city ever since.

One of the first iconic NYC images to grab my attention was the ubiquitous take-out coffee cup. It was blue and white and featured an image of a classical greek sculpture, the discobolus, his nudity covered by some type of gladiatorial skirt. A little design suggestive of architectural moulding ringed the top and the bottom of the cup, and what appeared to be an olympic flame stood next to him. The back side of the cup said "It's Our Pleasure to Serve You".

Christopher Pelley, from "6 Cups Recto/Verso" 2010 digital photo

This little disposable cup has come to represent for me the unique cultural engine that is New York. The City is a voracious consumer of differing national identities and cultural heritages which become synthesized into the fabric of daily life on a scale unparalelled in the world. This bit of NYC ephemera also represents for me some core concepts of my work as an artist: the persistence of imagery across the centuries, and the profound influence of the past on the present.

The temporary installation at the Vizivarosi Gallery took approximately 2500 2.5" x 2.5" painted squares of paper to form the lo rez digital image.

John Balian, the Cultural Attache to the American Embassy in Budapest, did the honors of speaking at the opening of the exhibit, along with Beata Szechy, Director of the Hungarian Multicultural Center.
John Balian and Christopher Pelley