We have forever drawn and painted on natural and constructed walls. Marks applied with permission or guerilla style, legal or not, negotiated or commissioned, temporary or permanent, can be declarative, decorative, administrative, iconic, religious, symbolic, personal, political, or mystical. Minimally crafted with mud or charcoal, or maximally adorned with fresco, mosaic, or intarsia, the wall as support for images is historically and psychologically significant.
Gary Petersen, well-known for spatially-complex, specifically-colored geometric imagery, has recently expanded his work to the wall, growing in size and ambition. Large wall works were seen in 2013 at CRL@Ed Winkelman Gallery and Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, and more wall works are scheduled in the coming months for The Visual Arts Center of New Jersey and TheodoreArt, Brooklyn. For his 2014 exhibition at Tiger Strikes Asteroid, “zip line tow rope,” his third and largest wall painting measures 14 feet high by nearly 19 feet wide, accompanied by three works on paper.
Petersen’s paintings enjoy a science fiction quality of The Jetsons variety, a future imagined in the past. Color has the harmonized, nostalgic, optimistic quality of packaging, design, and animation remembered from youth. Intense, opaque color contrasts with softer ones suggesting translucence and distance.
As serious and pop-comic as, say, Hilma af Klint plus Nicholas Krushenick, Petersen’s layers of skewed, flexing parallelograms, solid or frame-like, compete yet fail to completely make order and sense. Things come apart or won’t align, like a haywire TV test pattern or exploded diagram. Unjoined framing recalls the mood in de Chirico’s haunting perspectives; vertigo and Hitchcock’s Vertigo come to eye and mind. Order à la Uccello’s series “The Battle of San Romano” under scrutiny collapses into the dissonant space of Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère,” or the shifts to the dense, chaotic energy of Ensor’s “Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889.” Teasingly aggressive, initially unsettling but ultimately playful, these constructions don’t conform to nature’s rules; what is solid becomes open, and what is stable turns otherwise.
Walls frame, shelter, and protect us. A wall’s primary function makes it a background, so an image on the wall can also recede. No matter the imagery, the artist’s job is to intervene and activate the wall, messing with its regular purpose. The image on the wall must engage the viewer and assert itself as a presence in the way a portable canvas hanging on the wall can’t. Petersen’s contorting lines and planes in strangely familiar color dynamically transform the wall from a static state into a surprising array of spaces that challenge us to interact with walls and images in unique or unfamiliar ways. Maintaining integrity from a small panel or canvas onto a large wall is difficult, and it’s a great credit to Gary Petersen’s vision and skill that he accomplishes this with such intelligence and wit.