The following essay is reprinted with permission of Dr. Diana Mille and the Thomas J. Walsh Gallery in the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts, presenting in 2002 the exhibition The Essential Moment - A Survey of the Paintings, Works on Paper and Sculpture of Joseph Peller. An illustrated gallery guide containing this essay may be obtained through the museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the Thomas J. Walsh Gallery directly through either this phone number or web address:

"The Essential Moment - A Survey of the Paintings, Works on Paper and Sculpture of Joseph Peller" will be on display at the Thomas J. Walsh Gallery at Fairfield University, through August 4, 2002. Peller's goal is to capture the unnoticed rituals of modern urban life: A group of women seated in a murky nightclub, for example, or a garment worker taking her coffee break. He carries a notebook with him at all times to record gestures, quick impressions and changes in light -- observations that he can apply to the artwork he creates in his New York City studio. Peller experiments with a wide range of techniques, including oils, pastels, printmaking, drawing and sculpture. (left: Ferry in Fog, pastel/monotype, 16 x 21.5 inches, © Joseph Peller)

Born in Toronto in 1953, Peller studied privately with the Canadian artist A. K. Scott and formerly at the University of Toronto's School of Architecture, the Art Students' League and the National Academy of Design. His work is exhibited in public, private and corporate collections across the United States and Canada and his awards include the National Sculpture Society Award for Figurative Sculpture in 1992 and the Len G. Everett Award for painting in 1994.

Joseph Peller: Romantic Myth, Realism and Aestheticism

by Diana Mille, Ph.D.


As we approach the next millennium - previously bombarded by two decades of scientific and critical "neo isms" in art such as neo expressionism, neo conceptualism and neo geometric -- it is both stimulating and comforting to discover a contemporary artistic genius that 19th century philosopher Henry David Thoreau would have surely described as one who "marches to the tune of a different drummer." What appears at first glance as simple and realistic genre in the paintings, prints and sculpture of Joseph Peller, is instead a passionate and intellectual synthesis of universal myths and allegories, realism and abstraction, complex architectural spaces and balance. Within his rich and complex synthesis, Peller explores the haunting notions of isolation and ambivalence. Caught in the unnoticed and intangible rituals of modern urban life, Peller's figures and urban forms are seemingly about to change. They express a sense of spirit, place and time -- an essential moment --, for instance, that seems to vanish before our eyes. In his subtly balanced compositions, however. Peller permits us a final glance at and opportunity to ponder these changing icons.

Born in Toronto in 1953, Peller's independent spirit preferred to study with artists who shared a similarly independent and eclectic vision. While studying initially with A.K. Scott, a Canadian artist and pupil of the distinguished American realist painters Charles W. Hawthorne and George Bellows, Peller also pursued private training with other Canadian academic and modern artists. Peller's appreciation of complex architectural spaces and passion for tonal colors and formal balance, however, developed from the artist's formal study of architecture at the University of Toronto and New York study with Thomas Fogarty, Jr. at the Art Students League. It is this varied and independent educational background, then, that played a significant role in Peller's development of a rich, complex and independent art form which combines a variety of approaches toward subject and composition and derives its inspiration from life and memory.

Although the couple in the foreground of Leda, for instance, was inspired by the artist's earlier memory of an "observed seduction" at a New York City restaurant, the actual couple in Leda was painted in the studio. Thus, what began as a small, monotype study from memory -- four years earlier -- is translated by Peller into a highly complex, romantic and mythic painting, at once realistic and abstract. According to Greek myth, for instance, Leda, wife of Tydareus, king of Sparta, was loved by Jupiter who seduced her by the river in the form of a swan. The myth of Leda was a popular subject for many artists throughout history -- Renaissance artists' Leonardo and Tinteretto. While the poses and the compositional format of the background painting within Leda suggests an affinity with Tinteretto's painting of the same subject, Peller's painting reads more like an exploration of abstract shapes and spaces which constantly shift as they move across the picture plane rather than as an illusionistic Renaissance window. It is not only then, the Leda myth -- in its own right -- which functions as Peller's subject, but also the artist's fascination with the complexity and balance of foreground and background content and space which is conveyed here through the use of repeated diagonals.

What began as another small study -- executed with dry brush and Japanese ink pen and developed into several small oil studies -- is transformed into the mysterious and sensual -- Ladies' Night. Constantly redefining his smaller studies, Peller brilliantly synthesizes the different physical and emotional views of his subject and composition until he arrives at a new and imaginary space, the final painting. The position of the hand of the main foreground figure, for example, was changed many times until it conveyed just the right physical and spatial emotion. As we scan the space of this elusive and mysterious New York City club -- where people interact in the space only to become part of the space itself -- one cannot help thinking of 19th century French realist painter Edward Manet. This painting, for example, like many of Manet's, is more about balance and the satisfying relationships of color and tone rather than being about precise forms in a precise space. As Peller comments, "Once you have achieved satisfying color and compositional relationships, the drawing will be."

While Cassandra derives its inspiration in part from the myth -- a daughter of Priam endowed with the gift of prophecy but fated never to be believed -- it also derives its inspiration front the real personality and dynamic presence of the artist's photographer/friend Kristina. The painting also brings to life the memory of an evening at the Rainbow Room -- one of New York City's grand institutions -- with its interesting and unusual spaces. Peller sees Cassandra's lengthy "Whistlerian Figure" into a sharply defined space where he explores the shadows and things that seem to change at every turn, largely resulting from the odd perspective of the mirror backing the band. What seems to be a simple genre subject, becomes once again -- on further examination -- an interesting and complex study of changing relationships between figures and space. Furthermore, the painting takes on a kind of universal "Art For Arts Sake" character not unlike that described by 19th century aestheticist James McNeill Whistler in his antirealist manifesto, The Ten O'Clock Lecture. In Peller's work aestheticism also takes precedence over realism. Cassandra, devoid of any specific narrative, for example, is subordinated to a compositional format emphasizing flatness, silhouette. rectilinear spatial balance and tonal harmony. Again, Peller uses earlier monotype studies to experiment with and to analyze the complex coloristic and spatial relationships between figure and space. In the final painting, for example, -- much larger than the initial monotype studies -- the high-keyed reds and oranges of Cassandra's hair forms a perfect scintillating, yet balanced contrast against the cooler blue-green compliments of the background.

Titles such as Leviathans, East River allude once again to Pelter's knowledge and appreciation of deep mythic issues. The word Leviathan, For example, has numerous and varied connotations. On the one hand, it refers -- in the spiritual accounts of the apocalypse -- to the great sea monster hades who appears at the gates of hell. Leviathan is also a symbol of the primordial monster relating to the sacrifice of things and to the force which preserves and revitalizes. On a more formal level, however, Leviathans also refers to a formidable, large and oceangoing ship. In the artist's hands all of these myths surrounding Leviathans are brought to life and transformed to illuminate the ebb and flow of New York's illusive and fading shipping rituals. The primordial ocean ships seem haunting and isolated indeed against the last of the "operative" docks near the artist's Brooklyn studio. Peller succeeds, then, in depicting the spirit of a moment suspended in time which is about to disappear and become a myth itself. Thus, an ordinary genre scene of an everyday routine cakes on a heroic meaning as Leviathans struggle to fight against all that threatens their existence.

The ease with which Peller moves from the realm of painting and prints to a smaller and more intimate sculpture like Sore Ankle demonstrates the artist's convictions regarding process. Peller's paintings and drawings, for example, are perfectly suitable inspirational materials for his sculpture. Here, for example, Peller not only uses wax and clay models to inform the more intimate cast bronze, but also pen and drawing studies. As is the case in his paintings, Peller prefers to work directly from life to capture a maximum of energy. Working without the constraints of an external armature, Peller moves freely around his forms to establish greater emotional contact with them. The artist's choice of materials -- red bronzes, versus silicon bronze -- results in a more transparent and dynamic surface texture. Intermittent bursts of light and shade infuse Peller's sculpture and create a flickering immediacy that suggests a sympathy for and appreciation of Rodin. Peller also selects a spontaneous or "keyhole" observation -- a moment considered over time --for his figure. Like Impressionist "Scientific Realist" Edgar Degas, Peller sacrifices specific narrative in favor of unusual angles of approach and interesting passages of design. In its precarious and uneasy pose, subject to momentary changes, Peller's sculpture, however, retains a more contemporary edge.

In the end, it is not only Peller's art but also his articulate commentary on the purpose of art in the twentieth century that suggests to this author a creative, artistic, sharing and well-read individual who is completely at home with the spirit of romantic myths, realism and aestheticism. "Art is nor a science or philosophy," states Peller, for example, "but something in itself. It is nor a series of intellectual conceits to be shared among the few, nor a sophisticated charade of truth. After all, if you are talking to yourself you are not sharing your art. My intention," summarizes Peller, "is to share my feeling, love and joy whose mystery is the basis of art."



Dr. Diana Mille is Director of Thomas J. Walsh Art Gallery at Fairfield University.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Thomas J. Walsh Art Gallery at Fairfield University in Resource Library Magazine.

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