Christopher Pekoc's latest exhibitions reveal the rewards of an artist who continues to challenge himself in new and increasingly difficult ways. No, that isn't a typo; Pekoc currently has two exhibitions in Northeast Ohio. Hand Made at the Akron Art Museum (1 South High St., Akron) is on view through April 26, and Hand Made 2 at Tregoning & Co. (1300 West 78th St., 78th Street Studios) runs through February.
Christopher Pekoc is a long-established Cleveland artist. He maintains a studio in Tremont and teaches at Case Western Reserve University, where he has taught creative drawing since 1988. He studied painting and drawing at Kent State University. He is a winner of the Cleveland Arts Prize (Mid-Career Award for Visual Arts, 2007), five fellowships from the Ohio Arts Council and a two-month residency in the Czech Republic. His work has been featured in more than 100 solo and group exhibitions.
The work at Tregoning & Co. is smaller, but this intimate show presents more total works. The exhibition at the Akron Art Museum includes a thoughtfully curated collection of larger works selected by Akron Art Museum's chief curator Janice Driesbach.
On two recent visits to Tregoning & Co. during Third Fridays at 78th Street Studios, Pekoc's work challenged me as a viewer. On one visit, my friend asked the most obvious question: "How'd he do that?" It's a question you're likely to find yourself asking as well. These mixed media assemblages are as puzzling as they are original.
The key, I learned through discussions with both Pekoc and gallery owner William C. Tregoning III, is Pekoc's unique process. Pekoc's Tremont studio is more like a laboratory, with each of his walls covered from floor to ceiling with bulletin boards filled with reference material, sketches and in-progress collage elements. Pekoc's process is also heavily influenced by his early years in his family's local hardware store. Despite mastering painting many years ago, he is more likely to use a blowtorch than a paintbrush in his work these days.
After mastering acrylic and airbrush painting, Pekoc's interest in the medium began to fade. At the suggestion of a friend, he began to focus on the collages that he used as his reference material for his paintings. Pekoc's inspiration begins with his materials and tools, which include a Xerox copy machine, a Singer sewing machine, laminate cutoffs from Kinkos, foil yogurt tops, shellac and more.
This fascination with process is evident throughout his current work in both exhibitions. A motif centered around hands is found throughout many of the works. Pekoc quotes Henri Focillon's essay "In Praise of Hands" in the Hand Made catalog: "Hands are almost living beings. Only servants? Possibly. Servants, then, endowed with a vigorous free spirit, with a physiognomy. Eyeless and voiceless faces that nonetheless see and speak."
This theme of hands represents Pekoc's role in these works' creation. His labor-intensive process results in works that appear to be aged hundreds, even thousands, of years. The works' dark tone creates an uneasy feeling, especially when his subjects break the fourth wall and seem to gaze directly into the viewer's soul. Pekoc's figures are positioned with emphasis placed on the use of their hands, and sometimes his central figures are the hands themselves.
An example of his models' intriguing use of their hands is "The Architecture of the Sky (Portrait of Jan Saudek in Blue with Bees)." Saudek is a renowned Czech photographer that Pekoc met during a 2001 residency in the Czech Republic. The blue, shirtless figure stands starkly juxtaposed against a metallic silver backdrop of stitched rectangles of varying dimensions. The original photograph used for the work was taken by Pekoc during his residency. Saudek is positioned with only one eye showing (perhaps a reference to his camera's lens or his own perception of the experience) and his hands acting as blinders, framing his vision, and reminiscent of the position of his body while holding a camera.
The figure is surrounded by and covered with a swarm of yellowjackets — an homage to Richard Avedon's "Ronald Fischer, Beekeeper, Davis, California, May 9, 1981." This is also an example of another common theme in Pekoc's work: the relationship between humanity/society and nature. Many of the works feature elements of nature, such as flowers and birds.
Each element in Pekoc's compositions is a symbol to be interpreted by the viewer. Their aged look is evocative of ancient works older than written history, encouraging an active "reading" from its audience. Like puzzles of interpretation, these works hold secrets; you can see it in the eyes of the subjects.
The stitching throughout the assemblages creates additional visual interest as well as a pathway for the eye to explore the composition. It also serves as a constant reminder that these elements were not originally connected to each other.
If you're looking for something bright and colorful to match your couch, this isn't the show for you. However, if you're looking for a powerful, challenging, yet rewarding viewing experience, see both Hand Made and Hand Made 2 soon.