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Thursday, July 01, 2010

Ely House sculpture show worth its Waite in gold

John Slade Ely House Center for Contemporary Art
51 Trumbull Street, New Haven, (203) 624-8055
Peter Waite: Parallel Play
Through July 25, 2010.

Imagine the coolest school diorama ever. Then multiply that by eight. That is one way to view the show of sculptures by artist Peter Waite presently on display at the John Slade Ely House. (In fact, Ely House director Paul Clabby says the show has been particularly popular with young people.)

In this must-see show, Waite—best known as a painter who specializes in depicting architectural scenes infused with questions of politics and power—leaps feet first into constructing architecture of his own. The results are stunning.Using junk—paint scrapings, studio scraps, toys, found objects, photographic slides and more—Waite has created works that could be miniature film sets for a grand epic of social disintegration. Think Children of Men or Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

Each work overflows with visual information, with signifiers personal, cultural, historic, social and political. A title card with text by Michelle Yee of the City University of New York Graduate Center accompanies each piece. Based on Waite's notes, these texts offer back-stories helpful in contemplating the works.

But in fact, these pieces are so rich with stimuli as to be almost overwhelming. Certainly, they resist simple interpretations.

In "Death Ship," the putative concept is that the ship-like object leaving a trail of hundreds of slides is "Waite's personal death ship." The inspiration comes from a 1925 B. Traven novel The Death Ship about a ship with the purpose of ferrying souls from life to death. In this case, the work is made of massed detritus from Waite's life: old brushes, toy animals, slide loupes, paint scrapings and tubes, an old passport, a shotgun shell and more. The slides that form the ship's wake are images of Waite's paintings.

It is a wonderful visual metaphor and not only in the way that the objects carry the weight of memories and our connection to the past and other people. "Death Ship" also plumbs darker metaphorical currents. Each of us contribute to this growing accumulation of junk and stuff that's choking the globe. And all of us are trailed by—and drowning in—the images and representations of the spectacle: the consumer/commodity society.

Perhaps the most cinematic of these artworks is "There Will Be Rust," its title a reference perhaps to Paul Thomas Anderson's film There Will Be Blood, starring Daniel Day-Lewis. This complex, beautiful and disturbing work combines architectural motifs, art historical references, religious symbolism, political commentary and narrative depth.

On one side of the work, toy Hot Wheels cars are lined up in rows in a rundown, weed-strewn drive-in. They face a screen showing a print of Henri Matisse's 1909 painting "Dance." Behind them looms the crumbling façade of a bombed-out cathedral. Facing the beautiful distraction, their backs are turned on the ugly reality hidden by the cathedral's façade.

On the other side of the façade stands society's dirty—literally—secret. An oil derrick pierces the earth, spilling black poison all over, sucked up by tanker trucks. The imperialist guard of tanks, soldiers, helicopters and jet fighters rings the oil well in defensive encirclement. As the title card notes, the moviegoers' distracted ignorance may be on the verge of explosive disruption: A nondescript [toy] Ryder van rolls into the drive-in grounds, pursued by a police car. Is the blowback about to begin?

The rest of the works are similarly bold. "The System: How It Works" comments on the production of art through the metaphor of a crumbling and dank factory. "Monster from the Deep" contemplates the influence and legacy of the 1960's with a shark-pursued yellow submarine (powered by the legs of the four Beatles as pictured on the cover of the Abbey Road LP).

In another room are displayed the complementary "Temple" and "Amphitheater." Both are inspired by actual structures Waite explored -- and in the case of "Temple" painted -- at Segesta on the island of Sicily. But as with his other works, Waite isn't after literal representation. Rather, he refracts their design, original purpose and usage through his own contemporary consciousness to create objects that are jarring yet sublime.

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