- ARTWORK BY BOB PELFREY
- DEATH JOYRIDING:
In honor of its 50th anniversary, Cuesta College has been honoring Chet Amyx, Barry Frantz, and Bob Pelfrey—its art department’s founding faculty—with a fall series of short-lived yet powerful exhibits of their work. Pelfrey, the final artist of this triumvirate, was hired by the community college in 1972. A retrospective exhibition of his paintings and drawings hangs at the Cuesta College Fine Art Gallery through Oct. 29.
There are two things I should address before continuing. The first is that life is cruel, arbitrary, and unjust, and this is the only reason I have not been able to give equal coverage to all three exhibits, though they have been equally deserving. The second is that I am currently taking several courses at the college, though not within the art department (full disclosure, right?).
Now back to the exhibit.
A corner-shaped partition was built in the gallery for Jeff and Dalton Jamieson’s exhibit back in March, and it’s been there ever since, changing the space’s character significantly. What was once a wide-open room now withholds its secrets for a moment after visitors enter, as guests are only able to glimpse the exhibit after rounding the corner. The extra bit of wall not only makes up for the space lost to a door and window, allowing more large-scale pieces to be shown, but creates an intimate little corridor on the opposite side, in which viewers are compelled to stand quite close to the series of smaller works that can be found hiding out in there.
Greeting the eye upon entry is a painting titled It’s Still Life, which depicts a small skull nestled in a neat row of various fruits and vegetables. Most of the painting is a dull gray, with this curious row of objects seemingly placed in a long rectangular alcove. The piece’s title points out the obvious—it’s a still life—but also that it’s still a still life even though one of the objects represents death.
Beyond the partition, the exhibit truly starts with Market and Powell, a lovely and rather earnest watercolor of a San Francisco street corner. Pelfrey painted it as a college student in 1960, while still making up his mind about whether to major in art. The works that follow confirm his choice as a fortuitous one.
Themes of the subconscious, death, the feminine, and above all the artist’s journey—whether emotional, philosophical, or geographic—are woven through the exhibit. Pelfrey, during his talk at the show’s reception, explained that many of the images in his work first occurred to him in dreams. This is true of One Broken Heart and Ten New Ones, a triptych in which an enormous heart shape protrudes from what resembles an unusually shaped baseball diamond (three corners and one rounded side), a crack marring its surface like the San Andreas Fault. True to the work’s title, 10 new hearts seem to have sprouted fresh from the earth and surround the broken one. Heart shapes can easily be read as quaint, but here the strangeness and sincerity of the image transcend any would-be cutesiness.
John the Baptist, Salome, and Tourists, completed in 1980, looks like a nature painting at first, with a great rocky boulder consuming most of the canvas. In the upper-left corner, we glimpse civilization off in the distance—some rather ugly freeways and buildings. Get close, and there is a wild-haired John the Baptist darting among the boulders, pursued by a naked Salome with her platter held aloft. Several sensibly dressed hikers look on, or seem preoccupied with their own business. Pelfrey intended the humorous scene to demonstrate, as he put it, “the feminine un-hinging the masculine” (never mind that “the feminine” in this case is represented by a bloodthirsty Biblical psychopath).
The motif of travel is explored with Beginning the Inner Journey and Outer/Inner Roadmap Series. The former is another dream-mashup, in which orange and red couples make their way through a sketch-like jungle of bodies and trees, which are outlined but not filled in, allowing them to mesh together intriguingly. The latter is a series of actual roadmaps that have been painted and drawn over. Here the suburbs of Boston are rendered in various shades of silver and gray; there, somewhere in the middle of the country, the birds can be seen preaching to St. Francis. Some sections of map are obscured entirely by patterns. One portion is presided over by Death, who wears a lipstick mark on his bony cheek.
Death and religion continue to turn up in a series of brilliantly colored charcoal and gesso works that dominate another wall. In The Price of Gold, bright, violent explosions of color seem to annihilate a figure with arms outstretched in either ecstasy or pain.
Most of the works in Pelfrey’s exhibit are unframed, and are placed cleanly and simply on the walls. This is true of Finding My Real Face: Self Portrait of the Everyman, in which Pelfrey depicts himself in various forms in five different charcoal drawings: an artist; a fool; a mere skull. The drawings are placed within a cross shape—another archetypal imposition.
Sometimes the biggest challenge of any creative process is letting go, declaring a work finished, sending it out into the world. I don’t believe an artist ever truly retires: The urge to perfect and refine one’s craft persists.
At his talk, Pelfrey questioned aloud whether Finding My Real Face was truly complete, calling it “really a work in progress.” The piece had always seemed to be inexplicably lacking, he explained.
But others at the opening disagreed, insisting that Finding My Real Face was in fact complete as it was. Pelfrey shrugged.
“So maybe it is finished,” he said. “I don’t know.”
Arts Editor Anna Weltner is pretty sure this article has ended. Contact her at email@example.com if it hasn’t.