New YorkOn Stellar Rays
June 17 – July 31
Codes can appear in a multitude of forms: letters, numbers, symbols, metaphors, and complex visual cues. Their covertness depends on the infinite range of possible types and combinations, and there are no external rules to their logic or limits to their idiosyncrasies. In his fourth solo show at On Stellar Rays, New York-based artist JJ PEET draws on this boundless spectrum, extending his madcap style of enigma to intimate scaled sculptures—ad hoc assemblages gently embellished with a miscellany of scruffy, clue-laden objects. Referring to the classical painting genre, the artist playfully calls this new body of work “Stilifes,” but in PEET’s iteration of the term, he dismisses traditional spacing and excises two of the l’s, in what looks to be another form of cipher. The artist’s eccentric titling and offbeat poetics conspire with the puzzling motifs that recur throughout the works in the exhibition. Illogical shifts in capitalization and underscores are typographical elements that frequently crop up in PEET’s titles; likewise, symbols, including perforations and X marks, are repeatedly inscribed on the objects themselves. Occasionally, titles and phrases are also directly scrawled onto faces of these works.
Exploring approaches to information distribution and themes of display, PEET works across various mediums creating sculpture, painting, ceramics, installations and video, often in tandem with one another. Many of his earlier pieces employ sculptural platforms, travel crates, and hidden spaces from which the artist created live video broadcasts or provisional studio locations, like a jerrybuilt painting-shed. These structures, sites, and props frame the work, both physically and conceptually. Here, the still life format—a grouping of juxtaposed objects animated by contrasting shapes and textures—serves as a new and productive site for PEET’s arcane symbolism, and it lends itself nicely to his emphasis on presentation.
In works like SHiELDNEWS (2015), small, seemingly insignificant items are carefully arranged onto a ledge protruding from the wall. Some of the more scrap-like materials gently lean on one another or subtly snake along the work’s edges. An idyllic porcelain figurine couple that could have been rescued from the dusty shelf of a secondhand store and a portentous image of helmeted officers flanks the piece. Pushing the shield metaphor further, a molded piece of clay shelters the couple, as if thereby saving them from harm’s way. While detached and distinctly different in tone, the objects gain meaning through their union. The still life tradition revolves around symbolic relationships that continually unfold in the work (as the genre has long functioned as a vehicle for the expression of allegory). Mining the creative possibilities of this convention, PEET’s Stilifes begin to play out allegories of contemporary realities.
Primarily installed at eye level along the walls of the gallery, the seven Stilifes come alive as the mix of objects—ceramics, detritus, and other found items—perform for the viewer and one another. The backdrop and base are made from crudely cut wood and aluminum panels, or in the case of UPLiNK (2015), a dangerously sharp block of granite. Each composition reveals a number of coarse edges and exposed holes, seams, and screws. PEET’s utilitarian-style assembly dovetails well with his selection of tattered, quotidian materials: fragments of copper, plastic, fabric, rope, and torn paper, to name a few. As constructed tableaux, the Stilifes recall Joseph Cornell’s wondrous shadow boxes, with their fantastic cosmological allusions (coincidentally, PEET also sometimes references cosmology in his work). The shelf-like supports of the Stilifes contain a complex network of imagery heightened by the dramatic ambient shadows cast in their wake, which create a peculiar and highly inventive mise en scène.
Oblique references to political, social, and economic crises emerge in these works, primarily through the artist’s incorporation of news photos depicting violent occurrences and hostile gatherings. Investigating the more unsavory events of our time, PEET questions prevailing methods of journalistic documentation. Pedestrian attempts at recording information via handheld devices, particularly smart phones and digital cameras, deeply inform these works. In Stilifes such as INFO (2013), PEET integrates rough looking clay objects, including a misshapen camera shell, in which the instrument’s inner mechanisms are conspicuously absent. Above it, a news image captures a belligerent crowd in the process of brutally assaulting someone. A similar spirit of viciousness reveals itself in the adjacent work, INTO (2013), which features a photo of a biker gang dragging a body through the street, accompanied by another camera shell, this time attached to a viewfinder.
Photographic documentation can serve as a powerful tool for raising social consciousness, and, as the Stilifes attest, a charge of activism certainly runs through much of PEET’s output. In several of the works’ appropriated photos, the faces of those we see pictured are deliberately blotted out with correction fluid. The smudged faces chillingly evoke the masked ISIS members who tragically murdered several American journalists and humanitarians following the terrorist group’s recent string of kidnappings (and as is well-known, ISIS recorded and broadcast these events on video). By redacting the faces of criminals and other corrupt figures, PEET dehumanizes the perpetrators, drawing our attention to their conformist nature. Although less horrific, the photo featured in BRONBINDER_ (2015) emits a sense of foreboding that is intensified by an adjoining image of a rifle and a target practice sheet. Here, the artist perhaps alludes to domestic gun control debates and rising concerns over police brutality.
REPORT_CODE_1 (2015) is the sole painting in the show. It hangs alone on a wall facing the Stilifes. Covered in a constellation of hastily drawn triangles, circles, X’s, and other pictograph-like marks, the composition conveys the sheer magnitude of PEET’s codified language. Attempting to interpret these signs necessitates a kind of mapping out of what one does not yet know, but almost serendipitously, the dots sometimes do connect. PEET’s highly distinctive symbolism and intimate collection of objects act as the lure for a more focused engagement with the works’ difficult and pressing public concerns. This experience—a waking up of sorts—is how PEET defines the term MAGiCSTANCE, the exhibition’s title. As the artist reveals through a formula laid out in the gallery’s press release, the term also describes a filtering system for the swell of information that is regularly unleashed upon us by today’s media outlets. An oddball take on one of the most conventional genres, PEET’s Stilifes look beyond this context, encouraging the viewer to expand their own ontological and perhaps far-out questioning.