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.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Reduce, Re-use, Recycle

In the two cities that I live in, New York and Roma, recycling has become an integral part of the urban existence.  Does the waxed tetra-pac go in the paper bin, or with the plastics?  The blue bag goes to the curb on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  Force of habit generates state of mind.  So when I was thumbing through a portfolio of old prints at a bookseller a few weeks ago, and found several copies of a 19th century print, I knew I had to recycle them. 

Christopher Pelley  Water Bearer #1

Christopher Pelley  Water Bearer #2

Christopher Pelley  Water Bearer #3

Christopher Pelley  Water Bearer #4

Christopher Pelley  Water Bearer #5

Christopher Pelley  Water Beater #6

paper size of each is 57cm x 43cm, image size is 37cm x 25cm

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Rome By Night

It is still March, and I have come to savor these waning days of winter. The air still has a chill, and the clocks have yet to be pushed forward.  The steady trickle of tourists that will become a torrent with the warmer weather retreat with the sunset, and I am left alone alone to have the piazzas and monuments and medieval vicoli all to myself.  I can hear my footsteps echo and the fountains gurgle under the feeble light of the sodium vapor.  A few shop windows beckon falsely - there is no one behind the locked gates.  That's OK, I only want to look.  I try to loose myself by turning down streets I don't recognize.  Like some sort of Cinderella for a few hours, this city is mine to possess. Tomorrow is another day, the morning will come and the city will be taken over by others, but for now it is mine. 

Good night.  Sweet dreams.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

New Chinese Landscape

The province of Zhejiang has always been prized for its natural beauty, its landscape immortalized in classic Chinese paintings.  Those lonely ethereal mountains rising up out of the mists appearing and disappearing seemingly at whim have much company these days.  The breakneck pace of urbanization has swarmed into these valleys and chewed away at the mountains and hillocks themselves. The small CUN, or villages with their winding lanes are being leveled and an unforgiving grid pattern is taking hold of the countryside. In the scant month that I was living in that intermediate zone between HangZhou and FuYang, I watched streams channeled into culverts and a valley covered with multiple meters of fill, mid rise complexes following in their wake.  I began looking down more and more, and up less and less.  At my feet lay the New Chinese Landscape.








As I photographed what lay at my feet, a Chinese professional walked by and asked "why?" in perfect English before jumping on his motorcycle and zipping away.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Harmonious Society

In September I had the amazing opportunity to participate at an artists' residency outside of HangZhou, China.  Skillfully organised by Luca Zordan, an Italian based curator, and hosted by SUN HOO Industrial Design Innovation Park at their office complex (still under construction) in Fuyang.

The New China is experiencing another "Great Leap Forward" and "Cultural Revolution".  Only this time around, the past is being swept away and the countryside developed beyond recognition more effectively by the pursuit of money than it ever was by  political ideology.  Not everyone, though, has signed on to the vision of the bright and shiny future.  And many more bristle at the greed and corruption that always partners enormous sums of money. Even I caught a faint whiff of trouble in the workers' paradise.  Slogans, posted by a government obsessed with control and protecting their status quo are everywhere.   "It is patriotic to obey the laws" is one that caught my attention on a roadside wall.  But the phrase "Harmonious Society" leads the pack in the "maintenance of stability" department.  

The glittering cities which have gone viral in China are constructed by a new underclass - migrant workers.  Beside every building site there sits a 2 story blue temporary metal structure which serves as worker's housing.  When the project is completed, the workers' housing comes down, and the workers themselves drift away.  The one at SUN HOO was located in an excavated pit (which will hold the substructure of a future high-rise), surrounded by its own stagnant pond of run-off water.  Many workers chose to live in impromptu tent villages built within the high-rises under construction rather than suffer the heat of the metal rooms they are allotted.  I too lived in the construction site, albeit in a completed building.  I had a room, air conditioning and an en-suite bathroom.  I watched in privilege the ebb and flow of the workers and how things changed almost daily from their raw labor.

With much pointing and smiling coupled with my sputtering Mandarin, I began taking photos of workers hands forming gestures in American Sign Language.  The 11 photos spelled out HE XIE SHE HUI, which is PINYIN for Harmonious Society.  (PINYIN is the phonetic spelling of Chinese characters in the Latin alphabet.  Very useful when using a QWERTY keyboard).  I displayed them propaganda style in a building they had recently completed.

Christopher Pelley  HARMONIOUS SOCIETY  installation

Christopher Pelley  HARMONIOUS SOCIETY  installation

The project continued at SUN HOO with a lo-rez portrait of one of the migrant workers.  Each 'pixel' of the portrait was a 5cm x 5cm piece of painted paper.  Still unfinished at the time the residency ended, I installed it "as is" on the floor of an unoccupied building.  The breezes blowing through the space disrupted the image and soon, like the workers, it will disappear. 

Christopher Pelley  MIGRANT WORKER  installation

It was an awesome time. I saw a lot, learned a lot, and left feeling morally ambiguous.