No Rest for the Weary
What makes a painter paint? And what transforms the application of paint into a painting? Those questions, among other epistemologies, are at the nexus of Minnesota-born artist JJ PEET's current show of work, The Sunday Painter, at Gallery Diet in Miami. PEET compares himself with contemporaries in the worlds of marketing and advertising, to determine that the identity of a painter is, historically, a radical act of self-definition. Being a contemporary painter means building an interior psychological structure that houses the belief in creative autonomy divorced from mass-produced commodity. In order for this interior structure to function, it must be assembled with a foundational conviction that if one commits the act of painting, viewers will eventually, for better or worse, look at it as product—even if it doesn't contain images of Coca Cola or celebrities.
PEGS, 2009. COURTESY MIAMI DIET.
A few of PEET's mixed-media acrylic-on-wood abstractions do in fact feature a celebrity, if you consider Dick Cheney Us Weekly-worthy. The surfaces of PEET's small, rectangular paintings, which extend over the top, bottom and sides of each base, are a contrast of smooth, sanded-down surfaces appliquéd, in some works, with small, cutout photographs of Cheney. Other works are harassed with chewing gum, a theme that suggests a re-reading of psychoanalyst Fritz Perls' theories comparing aggression and assimilation with human chewing (in his 1947 text Ego, Hunger, and Aggression). Alternately delicate and belligerent, with carefully-wrought and coded images that the artist riddles with recurring motifs such as oblong "heads" and gestural curtains, the paintings are often hung in diptychs, and their imagery repeats the theme of duality through several pairs of ersatz "eyes."
Accompanying the paintings is a small TV screen built into a sleek, lacquered gray wooden box. On my visit, the screen displayed a hovering helicopter in slow motion (the screen also features, at different intervals, a live, close-circuit feed of the artist at work in a hidden studio he has built in the gallery). The helicopter video recalls a Predator drone. By examining artistic creation through the least romantic figure in recent American politics, Dick Cheney, PEET invites reinterpretation of the history of painting. He highlights the aggressive politics of a history of singular visions, or masterpieces. No vocations are safe: one thinks of Adolf Hitler, and his eerie aquarelles depicting gingerbread architecture and mumsy florals. One thinks equally of connotations of leisure (Churchill and Eisenhower were both amateur—Sunday—painters. One recalls George W. Bush reading Camus' The Stranger on vacation.
Complicating the traditional gallery idea that "the best stuff gets put on the wall, the worst gets hidden in back," the show also includes another body of paintings encased in portable crates, which are dropped in a pile at the center of the gallery. The artist built the crates specifically for their journey South (PEET is based in New York, and had a solo show of sculpture and video last year at On Stellar Rays), and the paintings inside them, while aesthetically similar to those shown on the walls, create the aura of an alternate reality, a show that no one can see.
PEET, who received his MFA from Yale before moving to New York, has in the past built secret studio structures, beginning with a storage space in a furniture warehouse in Minneapolis. The current iteration, titled Shadow_1, features a rather hilarious door with certain elements of the artist's understated humor: a Champ hat box is printed repeatedly with the word Champ (yet PEET repeats it again in marker) and another packing box reads "OLD R SHIT" (which one could read as the artist's impetus toward new bodies of work). A stack of Fage yogurt containers appear at the midpoint between yesterday's breakfast and tomorrow's paint receptacle. A window fan, a smushed computer keyboard and a few castoff lightbulbs add to the deliberate hodgepodge camouflage.
The studio is built with limited resources, and make a muse of economy. The doctored paintbrushes and dependence on DIY vessels (PEET is also a trained and gifted ceramicist) recalls the tools built by photographer Miroslav Tichý, whose recent show at ICP celebrated both the artist's work and his practice of making his own equipment. Tichý's cameras are revelations: Made with lenses crated from cardboard toilet paper rolls, they seem like children's toys, yet they were crafted with enough innovation and utility to allow the photographer to create his iconic body of work.
Similarly, PEET meshes the act of building with creating, and tools and structures become autonomous works of art. In a recent panel discussion at the New Museum, based around Rosalind Krauss' legendary essay Sculpture in the Expanded Field, artist Josiah McElheny used PEET's work to exemplify his belief in the actuality of Strauss' terms within the realm of young contemporary artists. PEET's secret studios and prudently crafted crates, and the relationship they have to his paintings (as artworks of equal standing), seem posed to defy structured art historical narratives and political agendas for a higher pursuit. They are physical representations of the personal, inner life of an artist.
THE SUNDAY PAINTER IS ON VIEW THROUGH MAY 30. MIAMI DIET IS LOCATED AT 147 NW 23 STREET.