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CHRISTOPHER PEKOC HAND MADE


Hands are almost living beings. Only servants? Possibly. Servants, then, endowed with a vigorous free spirit, with a physiognomy. Eyeless and voiceless faces that nonetheless see and speak.1 Hands in myriad gestures— extending invitation, protecting, playfully balancing balls or in Tantric poses—recur again and again in Christopher Pekoc’s evocative assemblages. The artist’s complex constructions also convey the presence of his hand in their making— with scarred surfaces serving as metaphors for our imperfections. Pekoc comments that hands appear alongside dots, another of his favored motifs, as far back as the Prehistoric cave paintings at Pech Merle in France. He Fig. 1. Portrait of Kathryn with the Planets, 1992, mixed media, including gelatin silver and electrostatic prints, paper, polyester film, brass leaf, food seal and machine stitching, 24 ¾ x 28 ½ in., Collection of Jack and Mary Ann Katzenmeyer, Shaker Heights. Photo by Joe Levack/Studio Akron

cites Henri Focillon’s essay “In Praise of Hands,” quoted above, as an influence.

A native of Cleveland, where he has forged his career, Pekoc uses the familiarity he acquired with tools in his family’s hardware stores to invent techniques that assist him in achieving his artistic purpose. Always adept with his hands, Pekoc quickly mastered traditional artistic skills—ably portraying the faces and hands of aging family members in exquisite graphite drawings while in his early 20s. Pekoc’s facility with pencil on paper encouraged the artist’s turn toward more complex media—creating large canvases using airbrush and acrylic paint. His monumental Night Sky, Cleveland, installed at the Cleveland Public Library

1 Henri Focillon, “In Praise of Hands” in The Life Forms of Art (New York: Zone Books, 1989), 157.

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in 1979, is on prominent public display. The forms that comprised these compositions were defined in collages Pekoc assembled from printed advertisements and other magazine imagery. Once he mastered the airbrush, Pekoc’s enthusiasm for executing the paintings diminished, making him receptive to a friend’s encouragement to “consider collage an appropriate end product.” 2

Since 1988, Pekoc has created an impressive series of photographically-based assemblages whose surfaces are constructed with and visually enriched by stitching. Artists Al Loving, Alan Shields and Lucas Samaras influenced his decision to incorporate sewing as an integral part of his compositions. The artist has clear memories of Andy Warhol’s photographs of an airplane wing sewn together horizontally and vertically. For Pekoc, stitching “symbolizes the repair of the psyche,” referencing setbacks we encounter and surmount in the course of our lives. In his assemblages, Pekoc reinforces this content by featuring emphatic gestures, as well as expressive faces and torsos.

Although Pekoc expresses a preference for working at night in his basement studio in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood, he is attuned to the activities of artists working both close to home and afar. The walls of his studio are covered with elements Pekoc uses in his compositions—including cut outs of eyes, birds, crosses, snakes, discs and hearts. They also showcase postcards depicting artworks from across centuries and throughout the world. These include Italian Renaissance portraits, Albrecht Dürer’s engraving Adam and Eve and Lucas Cranach’s painting of Lucretia and more contemporary works by Francis Bacon, Yayoi Kusama and Arthur Gonzalez. He recalls seeing photographs by Doug and Mike Starn in Boston in the 1980s and Luis Gonzalez Palma’s compositions on frequent visits to museums, including the Akron Art Museum. An avid consumer of magazines and purchaser of art books, Pekoc admires artists as diverse as Lesley Dill, David Ireland, Anselm Kiefer, Mimmo Paladino and Andrew Wyeth.

2 Christopher Pekoc has generously shared comments on his work with the author in conversations at his studio

in Cleveland and in Akron, Ohio, dating from August 2013 through September 2014.

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Portrait of Kathryn with the Planets (Fig. 1), an early assemblage, differs from many of Pekoc’s later works in that its central component is a traditional gelatin silver print rather than a Xerox enlargement. Pekoc enjoyed experimenting in the darkroom, but—as with other endeavors—lost interest when he became proficient. He took Kathryn’s photograph as a test for another artwork, but it “proved too faint for its original purpose.” This was one of many occasions when the artist redeployed an image or took advantage of an accident.

The surface of Portrait of Kathryn with the Planets reveals the complexity of its construction. Kathryn’s head is crowned with wings from a sculpture Pekoc photographed behind the Cleveland Museum of Art—wings the artist shows bound, restricting their freedom. He speaks of composing with the primary concern of how his forms fit visually, but also consciously endows them with personal symbolism. Here his references range from planets that serve as indications of “a power in this universe that is greater than we are” to the thorns on the hand at the right alluding to life’s ups and downs. For Pekoc, the circular form floating above Kathryn’s head—a repurposed yogurt container seal—is at once an orb and an allusion to the subject’s femininity. On inspection, we discover other images that are not what they appear to be, with the heart at the lower edge in fact a cropped magazine photograph of the knees of a model in leopard print tights.

As has become his custom, Pekoc laminated his photographs to allow him to manipulate them more easily. Portrait of Kathryn with the Planets was shellacked and the figure covered with clear acrylic medium. As evidence of his hand, Pekoc left traces of the masking tape he used to hold elements in place. Since he envisioned his composition being pinned up with tacks for display, he applied a muslin backing with clear acrylic medium that seeped through to the front, causing the surface “to ripple, look like leather.”

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Portrait of Lara (as Olympia) (Fig. 2), 2000–June 8, 2008, acknowledges Pekoc’s practice of dating works at their start and completion–and their often extended duration in his studio. Here the figure, again a muse, is composed from separate photographs Pekoc took of the model’s head and body. Their imperfect fit is disguised by the ribbon that surrounds her neck, which alludes to the iconic Edouard Manet painting that provides its title. Again Pekoc reused an image from another project for this composition. Now deprived of the darkroom Case Western Reserve University once offered, he instead enlarged Lara’s portrait with Xerox, seeking to “take the photograph and drag it as far into the world of painting as it can go” by magnifying his image to the extent possible and Fig. 2. Portrait of Lara (as Olympia), 2000–June 8, 2008, mixed media, including aluminum leaf and laminated electrostatic prints on polyester film and machine stitching, 25 5/8 x 22 in., Collection of Ursula Korneïtchouk, Cleveland

achieving maximum value contrast. Spots of paint on the surface, which Pekoc carefully spattered off a toothbrush, likewise reflect his

interest in achieving a painterly effect. A smudge on Lara’s shoulder remains as residue from the artist gilding the composition, then, dissatisfied, deciding to scrape away the gold tone—an indication of his experimental approach and willingness to leave evidence of his arduous process. The background, which has the quality of “lumpy silver,” is material leftover from another project.

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Fig. 3. Shadows (The Chinese Room Remembered, in Red), Čimelice Castle, Czech Republic, 2001, mixed media, including brass leaf, laminated electrostatic prints on polyester film, paper and machine stitching, 65 ½ x 30 ½ in., Private Collection, Cleveland

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An invitation from the Ohio Arts Council to spend two months in the Czech Republic in 2001 proved decisive for Pekoc, particularly since it closely followed the death of his father. Pekoc was moved when he learned that Čimalice Castle, where he stayed, was only a short distance from the ancestral homeland his father had dreamed of visiting. Čimalice proved more a chateau than a castle; a grand home dating to the late 1800s that had fallen into some disrepair. Pekoc shared communal dinners with thirteen other artists from the United States, Europe and Australia, and found himself responding to the surrounding countryside and embracing new materials he encountered there.

Despite his fascination with Čimalice’s rural landscape and the peasant routines he observed, Pekoc was drawn to the castle interior. He began photographing details of the structure and décor, which reflected the influence of Orientalism in Europe at the time of the castle’s construction. Elaborate footstools, a parquet floor, and the bamboo and birds used as decorative motifs caught the artist’s attention. Pekoc sought to reproduce these at scale in Shadows (The Chinese Room Remembered, in Red), Čimalice Castle, Czech Republic (Fig. 3). Although the décor of the castle was dominated by dark greens and browns, Pekoc chose the “regal colors” of red

Fig. 4. The Juggler’s Hand IV, 2008–October 8, 2010, mixed media, including laminated electrostatic print on film, brass and aluminum leaf, plastic discs, laminated wax paper and food container seals and machine stitching, 36 x 23 1/8 in., Courtesy of the artist and Tregoning & Co., Cleveland

and gold for his composition. He describes himself as “in love with this red,” which he discovered in the Czech Republic, and sees its use as part of his celebration of his time there. While the color was intended for staining wood, Pekoc realized it could be employed for his purposes. He achieved the brilliant scarlet by painting on a roll of paper that he soaked in water, crinkled and left to dry, with the pooled pigment producing areas of saturated color. The composition’s sheer beauty is interrupted by an obscure figure that approaches in the background with hand extended. Not originally part of Shadows, the silhouette is the first self-portrait Pekoc incorporated into an assemblage.

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Balancing Blue (Fig. 5) features the sumptuous manganese blue pigment Pekoc discovered in the Czech Republic. The artist’s own outsized fingers hold bright blue forms symbolizing the color he works with as a painter. These contrast with amber circles that function as accents and acknowledge shellac as another important medium in his work. Another composition with a prominent hand, The Juggler’s Hand IV (Fig. 4), references the “precariousness of life.” Pekoc notes how juggling requires skill and how “we’re always juggling different things to get through the days, weeks, years.” This image is backed by a sheet of wax paper that the artist had used to capture shellac, its dark outlines residue from earlier compositions. Pekoc added silver leaf to the lower section when Thomas Ball asked to show this process in his award-winning film on the artist and describes its contrast with gold leaf above as serendipitous. 3

Threats to nature and environmental degradation have Fig. 5. Balancing Blue, 2008–September 11, 2010, mixed media, including laminated electrostatic print, polyester film, paper and machine stitching, 24 ¾ x 15 ¾ in., Courtesy of the artist and Tregoning & Co., Cleveland

increasingly engaged Pekoc, concerns that are embodied in his recent work. As an example, Black Hand, Gold Dove (Fig. 6) was conceived as a commentary on the fossil fuel industry. The ominous hand is formed by material that Pekoc cut from the background of Balancing Blue (Fig. 5), one of the more dramatic examples of how the artist reutilizes his scraps—and of how dissimilar his motifs appear when placed in different contexts. Both the forms between the fingers and the hand, which Pekoc elaborated with scrawl stitching to increase its visual interest, represent coal. The dove that hovers above symbolizes nature, its gold color signifying value. While the menacing cloud surrounding the bird alludes to pollution, Pekoc comments that its sparkling gold dots signal the possibility of correcting the damage the earth has sustained.

3 Thomas Ball,The Beauty of Damage: The World of Christopher Pekoc (Cleveland: Telos Productions, 2008).

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Among his current projects, Pekoc is engaged with photographs he took of the renowned photographer Jan Saudek in the Czech Republic. Long an admirer of Saudek’s work, particularly an early self-portrait series that he had viewed in New Orleans many years before, Pekoc secured an introduction to the artist. Since Saudek had portrayed himself progressively disrobing, Pekoc asked his subject to remove his shirt and jewelry, requests that Saudek largely accommodated. Working with black and white film and without access to a tripod, Pekoc took six photographs, each capturing Saudek expressively gesticulating. In addition to serving as a portrait of an artist he admires and who connects him with his Czech heritage, Pekoc describes The Architecture of the Sky (Portrait of Jan Saudek in Blue with Bees) (Cover) as addressing the importance of “preserving nature, being one with and respectful of nature.” Initially thinking he would not use this photograph, Pekoc pulled it out when Ball wanted to film him using a blowtorch. Following the demonstration, Pekoc liked the effect the blowtorch had created and regained interest in the image, which he now envisions as part of a series of six

Fig. 6. Black Hand, Gold Dove, 2008–2013, mixed media, including laminated electrostatic print on film, brass leaf, polyester film, paper and machine stitching, 40 x 25 in., Courtesy of the artist and Tregoning & Co., Cleveland

assemblages featuring Saudek.

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The yellow jackets that surround the subject in The Architecture of the Sky pay homage to Richard Avedon’s startling portrait of an albino beekeeper.4 Pekoc references the collapse of bee colonies as a cause for concern about our environment and notes that Saudek’s pose emphasizes his eyes, suggesting the power of his vision. On one level, Saudek can be viewed as having the vision required to be an insightful photographer and “on another, the vision to identify the need to be more respectful of the planet.”

Portrait of K. as Eve with a Black Heart (Fig. 8) revives a theme Pekoc has explored for more than two decades. This new composition is the culmination of an extended series of images of Adam and Eve from the 1990s. The earlier images, many of which featured fulllength figures, were intended in part to Fig. 8. Portrait of K. as Eve with a Black Heart (in progress), 2014, mixed media, including gelatin silver print, on laminated electrostatic prints, polyester film, paper and machine stitching, 41 ½ x 33 in., Courtesy of the artist and Tregoning & Co., Cleveland

address the failure of men and women to communicate, a theme Pekoc has identified as central to his work. The artist was inspired to embark on Portrait of K. as Eve by his interest in animating a powerful image that had sat in his studio unused. The figure of Eve, from a gelatin silver photograph Pekoc made in 1991, is printed life-size surrounded by some of the iconic elements—lilies,

4 Richard Avedon, Ronald Fischer, Beekeeper, Davis, California, May 9, 1981, from the portfolio In the American West.

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hearts, dots—the artist stores sorted in cardboard trays to draw upon as needed. The muse featured in Portrait of Kathryn with the Planets (Fig. 1) is now depicted with her arms crossed over her chest, the artist’s longstanding symbol for female beauty. Pekoc wrestled with the composition for some time, initially demurring from placing the figure against a black background, which functions as a symbol of night. He views this in opposition to amber as indicative of daytime and embodying female attributes.

Christopher Pekoc’s assemblages are distinctive among the work of his colleagues in Cleveland and far beyond. At a time when artists are engaging with technology and exploring new tools, Pekoc uses gelatin silver and Xerox prints, shellac, sandpaper, punches and other common tools and materials to expressive effect. He employs hand stitching to supply content to his compositions, as well as to add visual resonance—another uncommon approach. Pekoc’s work is dark and reflects the artist’s preference for the night and interest in exploring the human psyche. His content has expanded over time, admitting new concerns and reflecting both his added experiences and new reflections on ongoing themes. Compositions developed in the

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studio over the course of months and sometimes years are thoughtful, engaging and original.

Janice Driesbach Chief Curator November 2014

Cover: The Architecture of the Sky (Portrait of Jan Saudek in Blue with Bees), 2001–2014, mixed media on laminated electrostatic prints on paper, brass leaf, polyester film and machine stitching, 36 ½ x 36 in., Courtesy of the artist and Tregoning & Co., Cleveland

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CHRISTOPHER PEKOC HAND MADE November 15, 2014 – April 26, 2015

For further information on the artist: Adams, Henry. The Beauty of Damage: The World of Christopher Pekoc.

Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University through Green Panda Press, 2008.

Ball, Thomas with Henry Adams, The Beauty of Damage: The World of Christopher Pekoc.

Cleveland: Telos Productions, 2008.

Connections: Ohio Artists Abroad. Columbus: Ohio Arts Council, 2002.

This exhibition is organized by the Akron Art Museum and made possible by generous grants from the Margaret Clark Morgan Foundation, the John P. Murphy Foundation and the Ohio Arts Council.

One South High I Akron, OH 44308 I 330.376.9186 I AkronArtMuseum.org

Profile for Akron Art Museum

Christopher Pekoc: Hand Made  

Christopher Pekoc: Hand Made is the gallery guide to the Christopher Pekoc: Hand Made exhibition on view at the Akron Art Museum from Novemb...

Christopher Pekoc: Hand Made  

Christopher Pekoc: Hand Made is the gallery guide to the Christopher Pekoc: Hand Made exhibition on view at the Akron Art Museum from Novemb...

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