Sunday, March 06, 2011

Hotels and Midnight Coaches

Los Angeles c. 1974. The shadows of trees flicker against shuttered windows as I perused the cover art of Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and It's Only Rock and Roll in my teenage bedroom. Sunlight made patterns on the wallpaper, suggesting peacefulness belied by the proliferating collage of rock stars in my closet.

Belgian artist Guy Peellaert's album covers, from Ziggy Stardust to Diamond Dogs, were the primary aesthetic fodder for my closet artwork.  Their ennui-soaked visuals brought the lyrics bemoaning the fractured lifestyle of touring expressed in Joni Mitchell's Free Man in Paris, CSNY's Pre-Road Downs and David Bowie's Space Oddity to life. The disorientation of such lyrics resonated with adolescent uncertainty and the cultural backdrop behind it: Vietnam War, Roe v. Wade, women in the workforce, Nixon's resignation, air travel, dissolution of the nuclear family. Before rock and roll touring morphed into commuting, the seedy glamor of "hotels and midnight coaches" still promised magic: I wanted to live in Peellaert's pictures.

Peellaert's images challenge art as an agent of discovery and connection, wherein material embeds meaning and invites prolonged engagement between viewer and process. In a digital world things move faster and are quicker to name and control, which Peellaert predicts in his mechanized scenarios. Rock star protagonists hover like the afterimages of the photographs and paintings they're copied from, grounded only by their sharp silhouettes. On Peellaert's official website (linked above) Michael Herr describes him as a "born icon painter in a world that uses up icons like paper plates." The quote applies to Peellaert's handling of space as well as figures. Brick walls, striped upholstery, cars and cakes enjoy identical treatment, as if simultaneously photographed, airbrushed and photocopied. Our eyes skip over surfaces unburdened by the weight of form; space unmoors as if Ian Beck's 1973 cover illustration of Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road, where Elton John steps into the fictional reality of a poster, had finally materialized.

But now Peellaert's fantastic worlds feel fresh again, backlit by digital culture. His grafted spatial transitions and airbrush-like surfaces presage the inky color, fast transitions and flattened space of painters like Peter Saul, Wendy White and Keltie Ferris, who run with a similarly hard, graphic aesthetic in various ways. Exchanging his groundless, iconic forms as gestures and his color and space for form points to other, equally new possibilities in painting.

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