Michael Pellew’s first major solo exhibition proved to be a tremendous success; viewers at the opening gathered in groups around the works, pointing out discovered moments and often laughing out loud. #1 Under Control World Tour featured ten drawings and four paintings by the prolific Brooklyn based artist in Western Exhibitions’ intimate back gallery. The tight installation felt appropriate for Pellew’s populous works; as usual the drawings were teeming with congregations of favorite music and TV icons, the occasional friend in real life, and fantastic alternate identities - Howie Zombie Mandel, Grace Jones as McDonald’s employee, the visual manifestation of Metallica’s Phantom Lord, or President’s Day, a heavy metal band with Bill Clinton on drums, George W. Bush on lead guitar, and Obama on lead guitar and vocals.Everyone is at the party of Pellew’s imagination, eager to welcome you to his city, New York City.
As an artist he remains remarkably consistent, with an unmistakable comedic voice and sense of levity. Popular culture is central to Pellew’s body of work, reflecting his earnest affinity for and commitment to the subject matter, often referencing or elaborating on specific historical moments (the filming of a Michael Jackson Pepsi commercial, for instance). Pellew’s hovering speech balloons and matter-of-fact portraits are produced quickly in graphite, colored pencil, and marker, an immediate distillation of the act of repetitively drawing uniform figures over many years.
Within his distinct framework, though, it’s clear he has taken on new challenges and concepts in these selections, all completed in 2017 (venturing, for example, more ambitiously outside of his archetypal human figure to depict babies, animals, and KITT from Knight Rider). These works also contain more elaborate narratives than we’ve encountered in the past, spanning comic book like panels, and in at least one case, continuing loosely from one drawing to another. Pellew himself appears in one such passage, stealing the affections of Heidi Klum away from Seal, but quickly the three amicably move on as friends.
The narratives he introduces remain brief and avoid conforming to any established rules or violating the ambiguity or party atmosphere of the space they live in. These priorities are perhaps best encapsulated in the appearance of Kitt - an unfamiliar idea just begins to exist before being absorbed by the ongoing narrative, thus behaving like every other preceding persona: “I’m the car of David Hasselhoff from Night Rider let me drive you and Paris Hilton to Luna Park but you know what welcome to New York, Buddy.”
The expansion of Pellew’s voice within his constructed paradigm is perhaps a good example of the distinction Western Exhibitions Director Scott Speh once described between work that is “well crafted” and that which is “interestingly crafted”. Citing artists such as Pedro Velez and Mike Andrews, Speh stated that he tends to be drawn to artists whose work is “conceptually driven”, but with “intensely hands on” foundations - an idea he reluctantly termed “crafty conceptualism.” Creating a highly original set of priorities and aesthetic goals and ideas, then striving to excel within those abstract of conventional ideas about beauty or craft is, of course, one of the definitive characteristics of artists with developmental disabilities. This is perhaps why Speh has taken a strong interest in progressive art studios, naming Visionaries + Voices’ Raymond Thunder-Sky at The Carnegie in Covington, Kentucky, and NIAD’s Sylvia Fragoso at The Good Luck Gallery in LA, among the top 5 exhibitions of 2017. Western Exhibitions represents Visionaries + Voices’ Courttney Cooper, as well as exhibiting drawings by Jenny Crowe, Andrew Hostick, and Wesley Willis.
At her recent Outliers and American Vanguard Art lecture at SAIC, Lynne Cooke spoke on the significant history of Chicago artists (most obviously the Chicago Imagists) and galleries recognizing, preserving, and championing the work by self-taught artists such as Joseph Yoakum and Henry Darger, among others. Western Exhibitions continues this legacy, exhibiting Pellew, Cooper, Hostick, and Crowe alongside other contemporary artists without minimizing the singular nature of their work.
Michael Pellew has maintained a studio practice at LAND in Brooklyn since its founding in 2005. Pellew’s work has previously been shown in group exhibitions throughout NYC and is included in the collections of Spike Lee, Mos Def, and Sia, in addition to PAPER Magazine, JCrew, and Citibank.