On ViewY Gallery
May 11 – June 16, 2013
“An English traveller tells of the intimate terms on which he lived with a tiger; he had reared it and used to play with it, but always kept a loaded pistol on the table.”
Intimate or no, the relationship that artist, architect, and philosopher G.T. Pellizzi shares with his tiger—that is, the art world—is not dissimilar from the one conveyed in Stendhal’s aphorism: Pellizzi, ever eager to engage in a play date, never steps on the scene without wisely packing plenty of heat. Indeed, in his 2012 collaboration with artist/mentor Ray Smith, The Execution of Maximilian: Border Paintings, Pellizzi’s wry blend of cheek and understated violence culminated in the incorporation of actual firearms into the painting process. For his most recent show at Y Gallery, Pellizzi has chosen a somewhat subtler if more complicated and intellectual approach, by leaving his “loaded pistol” latent but placing it (aggressively, mischievously) in plain sight. The result is The Red and the Black (2013), a shrewd yet seductive participatory installation that comes alive by pointing to the arbitrary but often immutable lines with which the contemporary art world has circumscribed itself—then by employing wit, paint, a book, and a buzz saw to slice neatly through them.
Borrowing its title from Stendhal’s sweeping, satirical literary portrait of post-Revolutionary France, Pellizzi’s The Red and the Black re-appropriates the two colors—which in the novel act as symbols for the two paths to power made available to the ambitious but low-born protagonist, Julien Sorel: the military (the red) or the church (the black)—as an analogy for the two paths now set before aspiring artists who wish to raise themselves up within the art world: the commercial (galleries, collectors, auction houses) or the pedagogical (universities, institutions). Rather than passing judgment or choosing sides, Pellizzi merely highlights the limitations inherent in such a bipartisan system, thereby positioning the audience as arbiter. Otherwise, Pellizzi’s visual interpretation of the theme is literal and sparse, placing intense focus on color and the careful construction of space.
Nine newly-built plywood walls of various sizes—all painted in the punchy, graphic shade of orange-tinged-red found in soldiers’ uniforms during the French Revolution—mimic and constrict the gallery’s foundational structure, making the basement room feel at once brazen and snug. At the show’s outset, each wall was a blank red surface with a thick inset border of glossy black oil paint, explicated only by the disclaimer that the walls were for sale, per square foot, at real estate market value, and that patrons could choose to purchase a portion in whatever size and shape they desired. Over time, as visitors designed and claimed their pieces of wall, Pellizzi delineated each segment’s perimeter with the same broad black stroke, creating a tidy but irregular partial grid of nestled Tetris-like forms. At the show’s end, all acquisitioned pieces of temporary wall are to be cut out and distributed to their respective owners, a process just destructive and democratic enough to be cleverly subversive: theoretically, as the installation is dismantled and dispersed, so too is the conventionally narrow, dyadic system of art world ascension it aims to critique.
This tension, a sort of sweaty suspense that hangs in the air, is further augmented by the installation’s irreverent work-in-progress atmosphere. The space smells of wet paint and vibes like Mondrian’s “Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow” (1930) and Vito Acconci’s “Instant House” (1980) just met to face off in a game of Russian roulette but decided to go grab a drink instead. Then there’s the provocative element of the show’s utter transparency. In the center of the dark, carpeted floor stand a black bench and pedestal upon which sit all of the artist’s materials: cans of paint, a pair of work gloves, a ruler, assorted writing implements, and a ledger marking each section that has been bought and by whom. Visitors are free to flip through this register at their leisure, pulling the mask off that most secretive, exclusive, and enduring path to power: money. Pellizzi’s room-within-a-room articulates the hidden possibility within a banal actuality, making what could easily have been a boring, boxed-in finitude into potential infinity, and of gaining a sense of self-actualized potential in a(n art) world wherein so much seems impotent and prescribed.
The question that remains is whether or not the disparate pieces, once cut away from the larger cloth, will retain this potency. Pellizzi expresses hope that one day the installation will be recreated and the many original parts brought together again to reform a new and imperfect harlequin sort of whole. When apart, or even if/when reassembled, will each autonomous piece be able to carry the (almost too) many layers and heavy conceptual framework of the original encompassing entity? Will The Red and the Black go out with a bang or with a whimper? Only time will tell.