Gravity Be Damned
A Different Set of Rules from Lehl and Peck
September 27, 2001
By Emily Hall
It seems to me that one of the legacies of recent events will be an ongoing crisis of perspective.
This is not to say that we won't recognize which things in life are terribly important--we are utterly attuned to those now--but that we might overlook others. I realized I was suffering from this ailment when, two days after the twin towers disappeared, I had to go to a press preview. Where, I thought, will I find the will to be interested? Not only was I interested, I was grateful.
In particular, there are two exhibitions, by Rich Lehl and Marion Peck, that posit an alternative existence to our current wretched one. Both refer to worlds where reality is fluid, where the usual is suspended in favor of the surreal. In both shows I found a kind of solace--a refuge and visual manifestation of my own feelings of unreality.
Lehl's work feels particularly (though accidentally) relevant, because in many of his paintings, people float or fall through space. Rules of gravity don't apply and imbalance is business as usual: a man walks his basset hound--who looks supremely satisfied with himself--a few stories above ground; in the midst of a glorious sunset-tinged landscape of clouds, a middle-aged man dives upward; a woman floats serenely past a picket fence. These works are rendered in a style much like that of the Mughal miniatures: specific, in rich, saturated hues, with a negotiated balance between realistic representation and an illustration-like flatness. It's like life, only more so, much like the way that things acquire a sharper edge and brighter colors after a tragedy.
Lehl is clearly in control of how much realism each painting conveys, and gives us just enough detail to be convincing. (The man shooting through the clouds is balding, round-faced, with flight goggles on.) His work reminds me of the German painter Michael Sowa, whose scenes of animals in the world seem to recall fairy tales, but no fairy tale you can recall. In one of Sowa's works, a rabbit wearing enormous pants checks out his reflection in a mirror. Why is he wearing pants? Why does he care what he looks like? But these answers are less important than the painting itself.
Peck, by contrast, gives us an inventory of her dreams. The paintings' titles very aptly mimic dream logic, the assumption as you enter a scene that the circumstances are already familiar, or that you have entered a story that started without you, such as in Dream #263: ...a steak which he begins to carve with a big sharp knife. In this work, a naked woman lies on a chaise longue with a look of blank consternation as a man dines on her stomach. A curtain is pulled to the side of the scene as in a theater, and the room is empty of other furniture or signs of life, which may or may not allude to the differing degrees of specificity with which dreams are remembered.
Peck's work most obviously recalls Flemish painters such as Van Eyck, with their glossy patinas and richly worked surfaces. But when you get up close, there's a kind of nervousness or feathering around each object, an instability that pulls at the subject's authority. But then, this is an authority that comes right out of the artist's subconscious, and is therefore already suspect. I can't think of a better representation of how I feel these days.