A shaggy beef jerky floats on a milky pink ground in the foyer painting of The Seductive Quality of the Impossible, Carol Peligian’s well presented show of paintings and drawings at East, a smart pocket watch of a gallery in Williamsburg. She presents works in two series: the Fate of Nations, comprised of one small and four medium size paintings in oil and enamel on aluminum, and the Systems Drawings, represented by twenty small works in ink on colored paper.
The paintings share common compositions and figure/ground elements. In each, there is a jagged central form set against the same monochrome pink ground. The central form appears to be a fragment of a larger whole, resembling perhaps the gaunt flanks and spine of a yak. The variety and palette of the soft brushwork in the central form evokes Van Dyke—with long blended licks of umber and vermilion, sienna and grisaille. The broken torus shape of the central fragment suggests at once a grizzled hide off the Northern Plains or the refinements of Dutch animal painter Paulus Potter. Between the depiction of a thing and an historical reference to a way of painting, expressive vitalism is channeled through the brush and hand into an abstract description of a musky breathing animal.
This painterly fragment of muscle and hair, gristle and fat sits buoyantly in a pool of uniform pink enamel. There is an acuteness to the color of this dreary peach—of perkiness tending towards fatigue, of a pond of liquid plastic ready to be poured into molds to make Barbies. These elements of the painting seem to strive for a perfect dissonance. References to biology and the baroque in the central figure are countered with minimalist inscrutability and pop exhaustion in the ground. Both figure and ground are entombed together beneath a thick gloss coat of clear enamel, and finally baked, buffed and beveled to cosmetic perfection.
The push and pull dynamic intended by the interlocking shape of the animal figure against the pink field functions better conceptually than it does formally in terms of a pictorial whole. The Fate of Nations paintings at times tend towards a compositional stasis, perhaps desired, that belies their conceptual friction, whereas, in the one smaller work, "Maquette—The Seductive Quality of the Impossible," the scale of the brushwork in the central figure creates a more taut relationship with the painting’s edges. Could the pristine nature of the painting’s solid gloss finish be excessive, skewing the carefully posed relation between the figure and the ground too far in the direction of pop production? Perhaps, or maybe the paintings are still growing into their larger scale.
The twenty small drawings, each entitled "Biologica Automatica," are individually framed and hung together on one wall in a grid. Collectively, they resemble a Victorian specimen or curio collection. On peony colored paper under a circular mount, each drawing is a careful blot of ink, fizzled and abstract, seemingly the product of chemical processes. As in the paintings, the palette is historically significant, with the fused iron gall, terra vert, and iodine colored inks reinforcing the nineteenth century aspect and its taxonomic tendencies. Some drawings are self-contained like a nautilus shell; others picture a process of degeneration, recalling slices of tumorous tissue or samples of plum tree blight. The amateur scientific read is furthered by the not altogether necessary provision of a magnifying glass as an aide to examination.
Pelegian appears to be an artist who eschews an evident technical facility in favor of the equipoise of differing systems of representation, the expressive and the mechanical, the aleatoric and the scientific. While this focus is evident in the drawings, which are engaging as the crucible remains of strong potions, it is even more promising in these arresting paintings as they become ghastly fusions of wild painterly presence and undead commercialism.
JOHN HAWKE is a contributor to the Rail.