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.