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)

Helen Rae

Untitled, colored pencil/graphite, 26" x 20”

Recent Drawings, at The Good Luck Gallery in LA, is a beautiful collection of colored pencil and graphite works on paper by Helen Rae. These drawings live in a space between the realms of representation and abstraction, most often realized as figures surrounded by ambiguous, pattern-driven environments resembling textiles or foliage.

Untitled, colored pencil/graphite, 26" x 20”

 
Rae’s incredible abstractions aren’t merely expressive, stylized reimaginings of found photos and magazines; each drawing seems to engage and elevate its source image with drive and ambition. Rae seems to search through the image, read it like a rich text, and celebrate every passage - the shadow of a frame against the wall, heel of a shoe, zipper on the side of a bag, are all described with incredible detail and conviction. Inevitably, the figures and faces remain expressive and bold, even as they’re nearly lost in a cacophonous ecstasy of patterns.

Lucien Freud said that “...truth has an element of revelation about it. If something is true, it does more than strike one as merely being so...” In exactly this sense, Rae’s works are undeniable revelations. The impact of the clean, uniform installation is vibrant and specific, further emphasizing the singularity of each drawing. 

Much like LA-based artist Eric Yahnker, Rae explores the limits of the often overlooked and rarely mastered medium of colored pencil. These achievements are the direct result of engaging in an uncommonly committed creative practice. Rae has been a studio member of First Street Gallery Art Center since it’s founding in 1990 - First Street’s Seth Pringle asserts, “Helen's focus and dedication in the studio are unmatched. She rarely misses a day and when she's in the studio she's always working diligently. The style and execution of her drawings have slowly but steadily evolved over the course of her 25 year career, growing in compositional complexity to its current state of mind-boggling beauty and intensity.”

The Good Luck Gallery is currently the only commercial exhibition space in Los Angeles devoted to self-taught artist programming. Owner Paige Wery was previously the publisher of Artillery, a contemporary art publication based in LA, for six years before opening the exhibition space in 2014. Wery became familiar with Rae’s work during an initial First Street Gallery studio visit; several people had suggested that she visit their location in Claremont, California due to the quality of art being produced under their long-standing, excellent program. Rae’s show has been wildly successful, selling out early and generating a waiting list for new work.

Untitled, colored pencil/graphite, 26" x 20”

Over the past several years, interest in the work of self-taught artists (historically referred to as Outsider or Visionary artists) has gained momentum as the contemporary art world becomes increasingly pluralistic. Wery remarks, “It’s very exciting to see the attention that Outsider Art has received over the last few years. I give huge credit to Massimiliano Gioni, who included outsider work with contemporary work at the 2013 Venice Biennale. I think that made a huge difference. The fact that contemporary fairs are including my program and other outsider galleries is a sign that things are moving in the right direction. Museums are showing and accepting Outsider Art into their collections far more often. I’m proud to have joined the champions furthering the exposure and dialogue of self-taught art. The conversations with collectors, artists, dealers, and casual visitors about self-taught art has been extremely encouraging. It seems the art being shown and the dialogues taking place at The Good Luck Gallery are already making a difference.”

Rae’s work has been featured previously in various exhibitions in New York, Boston, Washington D.C., Scotland, Belgium, Japan, and extensively in California. Rae has been based in the Claremont area since 1938.


Helen Rae: Recent Drawings
April 18 - May 16, 2015


The Good Luck Gallery
945 Chung King Road (Chinatown)
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Wednesday – Sunday
Noon – 5PM and by appointment