Dedicated to covering the visual arts community in Connecticut.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Peskine nails it

Real Art Ways
56 Arbor St., Hartford, (860) 232-1006
Alexis Peskine: Cloué: Bound By History, Class and Color
Sept. 20—Oct. 14, 2007

Alexis Peskine managed to put the finishing touches on "Please Don't Hurt 'Em," an installation that is part of his show in Real Art Ways' Real Room gallery (effectively the contemporary arts center's lobby), barely 15 minutes before the show opening. The opening coincided with this month's Creative Cocktail Hour. There were tasty snacks to be had, drinks served (for a price) and shows new (Peskine's Cloué: Bound By History, Class and Color) and old (50,000 Beds, coming down this weekend).

Peskine, born in France and of mixed Afro-Brazilian and Franco-Russian heritage, has a strong background in graphic design and brings that take to his fine arts work. The works in this show touch on issues of identity, specifically the position of Black people in predominantly white European and American society.

These mixed media paintings on enamel have a dynamic graphic presence. The imagery is akin to photo silkscreen. In fact, in a conversation with Peskine during the opening, he told me that he does indeed use photos in conjunction with Photoshop to set up his imagery.

But the most novel aspect of Peskine's work is his incorporation of nails. Nails with different size heads are massed on the work so as to approximate photo offset halftone dots. They are hammered into the wood at various depths to give it a rolling topographic surface. (They seem to invite the touch and, indeed, I did see one viewer run her fingertips over the nails.)

The images are powerful. The most striking, at least for me, is "Identite." It shows a black man with his hands up against an urban wall, possibly being detained by the police. "Meazinha Revisited" depicts a woman, perhaps dancing, or maybe talking animatedly. (But we all see things in our own way. Another viewer, who saw my reporter's notebook, came up to me and said he thought it was a painting of a woman being Tasered.) "Jim and Gus" uses red, and painted red nails, on a black background to show the dangling feet of two lynching victims. A wide belt with a stock of $100 bills attached to it—"It's all about the Benjamins"—hangs down the left side of that work.

The installation work, "Please Don't Hurt 'Em," is pure black paint on white surface—panel and wall—with only the silvery nails to allow for crossover gray. The image is of a man in motion. It is a frozen silhouette, head looking up slightly and one foot stepping out of the box of the image onto the wall of the gallery.

In this work, I thought I saw a man being shot. But in talking with Peskine, he explained that the piece is about someone trying to step out of the racial "box" most of us get stuck in.

"He's trying to get out of the piece of wood, the place he's confined," said Peskine. "It's ingrained in the DNA of Americans. It's very difficult" for people to get out of their racial boxes.

I asked Peskine about the use of the nails. I could see their strength as a graphic element, referencing halftones, and their tactile attraction. I wondered if there was also a symbolic dimension to their use, perhaps with crucifixion connotations.

No crucifixion connotations, Peskine said. (Although he did note that he had first thought of using them in this way for an anti-George Bush work featuring Jesus in a Batman mask before an American flag. But he decided that in that case the employment of nails would be "too literal.")

"They represent the transcendence through struggle of Black people," Peskine said. They have an aesthetically useful dual nature. They can be painful—spikes—but they can also be used to build things. They also reference, Peskine said, the Nkisi figures of Africa.

He starts with a photo and translates it into a halftone pattern in Photoshop. That becomes a kind of mask for the imagery.

"I have to make sure that the biggest dot doesn't exceed the biggest size of a nail," he said.

The photo in "Jim and Gus" was from the book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America by Hilton Als and James Allen.

"It was the only piece where I painted the nails," said Peskine. They are blood red. Peskine also left some of the torn paper mask underneath the nails to represent violence and burning. The juxtaposition of the money belt with the lynching image refers to the "parallel between the violence and the illicit things that happen in the Black community today." The flashy belt buckle could be seen as hip-hop style and something that's aggressive; the $100 bills symbolize drug dealing and other aspects of the underground ghetto economy.

"It's about the legacy of racism in America and the effect it has had on the Black community. Self-hatred, Black on Black crime, things like the CIA bringing crack into Black neighborhood," Peskine told me. "And how America got rich off of slavery."

As for "Identite," it is an image of "a person against the wall being I.D.-checked," said Peskine. "This happened to me throughout my youth" in France, Peskine noted, adding that it was a common situation for French of Black or Arab descent. "Identite" "translates the feeling of a sense of shame when you're in this position."

"Meazinha Revisited" is not about the travail of Black life, at least not directly. It is, Peskine confirmed, an image of a woman dancing. The process of adding the nails is very tedious. In response, he "did something very vibrant around" her image, adding contrast to the posterized photo effect with lively swirls of bright paint.

"A lot of pieces are more serious. [In "Meazinha Revisited"] I wanted to talk about the positivity and energy and creativity that came through the struggle of Black people," Peskine explained.

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