The Effortless Humor of Michael Pellew

Michael Pellew, Untitled, 2016, Mixed Media on Paper, 11"x17"

Michael Pellew, Michael and Latoya Texting on the Beach, 2015, Acrylic on Canvas, 12"x9"

Michael Pellew, British Platter, 2015, Mixed Media on Paper, 14"x17"

One of the fantastic surprises at the Outsider Art Fair this year was our experience with the work of Michael Pellew. Pellew’s work is unassuming, and in the context of the fair particularly blends in - a style defined by repetition, drawing within a simple system, and the use of unconventional materials (markers). We were more familiar with his series of small original drawings marketed as greeting cards, which typically feature a grouping of four or five figures (available at Opening Ceremony in Manhattan and LA). In a larger scale, the voice only available in snippets in smaller works unfolds to become an astonishing comedic performance.

The repetition and economy of visual language in his work is necessary to the humor - each figure articulated in an identical manner, with just a few distinctive features describing its specific identity. The supreme ease with which each character enters the scene via this agile visual vernacular accounts for the works’ pace and timing. There's an exciting cleverness in the way the simple archetype of the figure takes on the identity of countless celebrities, analogous to a skilled impressionist mimicking pop culture icons in rapid succession. Pellew seems to be compiling an ongoing, shifting catalog of celebrities; those with apparent relationships or categorizations are sporadically interrupted with unexpected pairings (Princess Diana and Lemmy Kilmister) or fictional personas (Lauryn Hill M.D. from Long Island College Hospital, The Phanton Lord). Viewers with an extensive knowledge of pop culture are highly rewarded by the ability to recognize the abundance and subtlety of his references.

Michael Pellew, Untitled, 2015, Mixed Media on Paper, 22"x30"

Humor is an important element in many works that don't necessarily make us laugh, but truly funny art like Pellew’s (beyond the occasional clever moment or inside joke), is very uncommon. Crystallizing the elusive and ephemeral quality of comedy into a permanent art object is extremely difficult to achieve. Usually the most overtly funny approach is to employ an explicit punchline that rests on an impressive technical or procedural spectacle; artists that exemplify this approach are those like Wayne White or Eric Yahnker. 

Eric Yahnker, Beegeesus, 2005, 13 x 10 x 10 in. "Bible whited-out except that which sequentially spells Bee Gees" image via www.ericyahnker.com

Eric Yahnker, Beegeesus, 2005, 13 x 10 x 10 in.

"Bible whited-out except that which sequentially spells Bee Gees" image via www.ericyahnker.com

Pellew’s humor, however, is more nuanced, so in the absence of a punchline, his approach relies on absolute fluency rather than overt technical prowess. The quintessential example of this brand of humor is Raymond Pettibon; works that appear effortless afford the artist a more casual voice, equipped to cultivate a more dynamic interaction between the work and viewer. When it's less obvious that there's a joke present, the viewer tunes into a more acute examination of tone and timing in search of the artist's intention. 
 

Raymond Pettibon, image via www.raypettibon.com

Raymond Pettibon, image via www.raypettibon.com

Whereas Pettibon uses this approach to insert sardonic or satirical moments of levity into his generally grim oeuvre, Pellew instead engages this sort of humor with a lighter and even silly sensibility; he creates an abundantly bright and positive space that is captivating. The conceptual foundation of his work becomes about treading the line between earnestly identifying as an artist, or slyly engaging in play-acting the role of an artist. Walton Ford has described using play-acting (as a scientific illustrator) in a similar way as an entry point into comedy. In Pellew’s case, the performance is broader, and in its execution more engrossing - guiding you through his alternate world, you're always uncertain if he’s serious, even as he crosses well over into the realm of absurdity.

Michael Pellew, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 2014, Acrylic on Canvas, 14"x11"

In the affable universe he realizes, there’s virtuosity in the way moments of comedic surprise cut sharply through. The lingering experience of these pieces isn’t static, but a dreamlike memory of an event unfolding; line-ups of celebrities…everyone had a pepsi…they were all hanging out around a limousine eating McDonalds…and then Marilyn Manson is offering his famous burger and fries. It’s an alternate reality composed of familiar characters and Pellew is leading us along, introducing each of them, all in his voice - but really it's the viewer’s voice. You are left walking away amused, incredibly satisfied, but not entirely sure what has just happened. 

Pellew has been working at LAND Gallery’s studio for over ten years and participated in numerous exhibitions in New York, including group shows at Christian Berst Art Brut and the MOMA. His work has been acquired by many reputable collectors, including Spike Lee, Sufjan Stevens, Citi Bank, JCrew and PAPER Magazine.

Michael Pellew, Making a Band (detail)