Peter Gallo: Blood & Flowers
Sean Horton (Presents) is pleased to announce a solo exhibition by American painter Peter Gallo — entitled Blood & Flowers, the exhibition is the artist’s fifth solo presentation (and fifteenth project) with the gallery.
Sounding like the perfect album title “Blood & Flowers” is a collection of some of the artist’s favorite refrains: short, accumulated impastos laid upon raw linen, lines of nails or staples edging the supports, and evocative words and phrases that sample deeply internalized texts. Pastel pinks, blues and yellows rest upon glistening rabbit-skin glue and weathered found materials — almost any piece of wood at hand (previously functional or not) is deemed an appropriate support.
Heaven (2022) positions an upside-down chair slightly above head height inviting the viewer to gaze upward towards the sky-blue-painted seat. Nearby, Driving and Crying (2017—2022) seats a small painting of a weeping figure in a chair; the scene is equal parts Marian apparition and late night intoxication. Across the room, fiat ars pereat mundus (2018—2019) couples Walter Benjamin’s dictum “Let art be created, though the world perishes” with a crudely outlined Totenkopf.
In Sunday Painting (2022) the creamy words “Better Days” are written in hesitant, loafing cursive to a slab grey ground. Clusters of sunflower-colored brushstrokes gather along the bottom edge creating a vista that causes the text to recede to the horizon. Like red blood cells into white, a soothing Baker-Miller pink seems to infiltrate the purity of the letters. In Gallo’s hands, cadmium red becomes both material and content; the poppies from his dooryard and the Mystic Lamb’s chalice, American Red Cross and Malevich, or flowers and blood.
Peter Gallo (b. 1959, Rutland, VT) lives and works in Hyde Park, VT. He received a BA from Middlebury College, and an MA and a PhD in Art History from Concordia University, Montreal. His work has been featured in solo exhibitions at the Douglas Hyde Gallery, Trinity College, Dublin; White Columns, New York; Horton Gallery (Sunday LES), New York; and Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London; among others. The gallery presented a solo booth of the artist’s work at The Independent Brussels in 2018 and a two-person exhibition The Patients and The Doctors with David Byrd in 2015. The artist’s work has been included in Artforum, the Village Voice, The New York Times, and Art in America, among others.
Q&A between Sean Horton & Peter Gallo
Wow Peter, can you believe it — this is our 15th project together…16th if you include Goodbye Picasso that I curated for a different gallery. Thinking back to your first solo show I Will Not Be Judy Garland with the gallery in 2007 to your most recent solo presentation Ship Of Fools at the Independent Art Fair in 2018, I must admit that I’m feeling nostalgic about when we first met in Vermont in the summer of 2004. You live and work in Hyde Park, Vermont, which is not far from where you were born and raised, do you see your work as being somehow rooted in Vermont?
Yes, we have a long and storied past together — I think you were just out of graduate school when I met you. As far as Vermont; I guess I would say that the village where I live and work, my house, my garden, my neighbors, the weather, and the necessity of all of this keeps me grounded — of course it all gets into the work. But at the same time I feel rootless, in a queer sort of way. And the work is rootless too.
I grew up in Rutland, which is an old blue collar town. When I was young, General Electric was the largest employer. Hyde Park is ninety miles north and it is very different — it’s a small shire village surrounded by agriculture, forests, and mountains. There is a wind that comes in from the Laurentian Plateau in the winter. In the summer there is so much light it feels like another planet. When I first came here, in the Fall of 1985, grass grew from the cracks in the pavement on Main street. Of course acceleration is changing everything. It’s a different planet, a different place.
You worked at the Vermont Studio Center for a number of years, when it first started. Who were some of the artists that you connected to there and what was that like during those early days?
Yes, in the mid to late 80s I worked at the (then) Vermont Studio School in Johnson as a staff artist; that was a very important time for me. So many incredible artists came through as visiting and resident critics; Harmony Hammond comes to mind, with whom I have stayed connected over the years — she’s amazing. I remember Hollis Sigler, Malcom Morley, and Archie Rand, whose early letter paintings of the names of R&B bands were important to me. And Louise Fishman, who I also hit it off with. Joel Fisher, Joan Snyder…there were also many old guard Hans Hoffman school people like Jim Gahagan and Robert DeNiro Sr. — he was a very sweet and generous fellow. Sidney Geist had all these crazy brilliant notions about Cezanne’s paintings that there were texts and words hidden in them — that of course very much appealed to me. And Charles Cajori, from the New York Studio School, who hated my stuff…really hated it. But we had great conversations about politics and physics, and he also opened my eyes to Cezanne. It was like going to graduate school, but better.
One of the first shows at the gallery (then Sunday LES on Eldridge Street) was Our Yard In The Future, a beautiful survey of the work of Gayleen Aiken that you curated in 2007. For those of us who have only known Gayleen through her work, what do you remember about her and more broadly about your time spent working with other artists at GRACE (Grass Roots Art and Community Effort) in Hardwick, Vermont?
Gayleen is one of my favorite artists. She was a very intense and creative person. When I left Vermont Studio School in 1989, I connected with Don Sunseri at GRACE, and it was through Don that I met Gayleen and the other GRACE artists like Dot Kibbee, Emily Sutton, and Roland Rochette. Gayleen lived and worked in Barre, which is the center of Vermont’s granite industry — it’s a fascinating, tough place with roots in American labor history. Gayleen lived there all her life and was a chronicler of the place. In her paintings and comix, the granite sheds were living beings.
She lived in a little apartment crammed with art, life size cardboard puppets, musical instruments, and all of these personal treasures and ephemera that she kept in boxes. There were colored lights strung around all of her rooms. When one visited her home, they had to set a time limit because she showed you everything — she played her musical instruments and she did puppet shows — it could go on for hours. We exchanged addresses and over the years she regularly sent little booklets, or zines, that were hand-colored Xerox (“x-rocs” she called them) copies of texts with hand-written annotations. Scenes featuring her cast of “Raimbilli cousins,” who were her ersatz family, and these missives went on for pages and pages. They were full of recollections and autofictions. Everyone was still alive in them — her mother, her cousins, her many cats — she loved cats…especially tuxedo “Suzie” cats. It was all extraordinary.
I put together a few shows of her work, one in the early 90s that travelled around called Rooms and Rooms and then Our Yard In The Future at Sunday LES, which was really quite lovely. It’s good to see how over the years her work continues to gain the recognition that it deserves. I continued to work with Don for twenty or so years and together we facilitated workshops in residential and day treatment centers in central and northern Vermont; Don was really a dear friend and a mentor — he was a beautiful artist and a beautiful spirit. He gave me poppy seeds that still grow in my garden.
When I first visited your home and studio I remember being compelled by two central aspects of your process; the first was how paintings and books lived equally throughout almost every inch of the space, and secondly how your paintings would often rest against the wall in a state of…let’s call it “Purgatory” for years before completion. I think I attributed this to your (then) day job as a psychiatric crisis support worker and to your pursuit of a PhD, which you completed a few years ago. I’m curious if you’ve noticed changes to your process and subject matter now that those two central forces in your daily life are behind you? I guess I’ve also never asked what led you to pursue a PhD — I think that sets you apart from most contemporary artists.
I’ve not really been properly professionalized as an artist. Years ago, in 2005, Roberta Smith made mention of my show at White Columns, which Matthew Higgs assembled so beautifully. She described me as a “self-taught artist in his late 40s from Vermont.” She compared the work to Forrest Bess, which was a huge compliment, but slipped me into that familiar typology. I live and work, like Gayleen, in the same rooms. I use my bathtub to make paintings. The books with my annotations are all connected to the paintings. I ruminate and listen to music. The paintings can take years and years to finish, and what stays in Purgatory too long gets painted over.
I decided to pursue a PhD because I was never really settled with the idea of being only a painter. In the 80s there were all of these important theoretical and critical questions. Even though I continued to paint I was focused on reading theory. 1984, Foucault died and I got my hands on an English translation of History of Sexuality Vol. 1, which I still have — it was a revelation. Then I read everything he wrote. The reading, the work with GRACE., and later as a crisis worker — it was all connected. I returned to graduate school in 2001 after my folks died and after a difficult breakup. I was well into my 40s and I lived part time in Montreal. I had no clear idea of what I was doing but these were some of the happiest and most intense times. I had a brilliant supervisor, Kristina Huneault, who really challenged me. It was an enormous amount of work and energy but it changed me — much the way a spiritual practice does — it was an ascesis. The dissertation was about the impact of early modern biopolitics and clinical epistemology on artistic experience and subjectivity; I did things like read Artaud through Immanuel Kant. I finished in January of 2013, so it’s been almost ten years and I’ve been teaching since 2015. When I look at my syllabi, so many of the classes I teach have grown out of the dissertation.
A lot has been written about your incorporation of text or language into your paintings — as we were discussing titles for this exhibition, we landed on Blood & Flowers — and it occurred to me that you often sort of “couple” words. What insight can you offer about how you collect, select, and incorporate text into your paintings?
We, you & I, we share a similar interest in music. I remember our first conversation was about our mutual love for monochromatic painting and shoegaze! Sunday LES, the Eldridge Street iteration of the gallery, felt like an independent record label and that seemed to fit both our dispositions. “Blood & Flowers” sounds like a perfect album title, but also something you’d find in Paul Celan, who is very important to me — he was a great poet who also wrote great lyrics.
I’ve always incorporated text into my work, even as a student. In the 80s and 90s a great deal of what I produced was typed out on found pieces of paper. I used old typewriters just as word processors and personal computers were phasing in. I’d get home from work and bang out pages and pages by using a modified cut up technique and sampling from what I was reading. I didn’t incorporate just the literature I was reading, but also newspaper articles, what I was hearing on the radio, and lyrics from songs. Leaving all of those haplographs and typos into the writing, the pages would get glued together into a living textual sprawl. That’s what my book Daytrtmnt was. Some of my drawings are just copied out texts and I use chunks of language, and like musical refrains I repeat them in the works. I’ve returned to some refrains for years and years like I also have with certain images. There were also long stretches when I was more interested in literature than painting.
Several of the works in this exhibition evoke Christianity, or more specifically Catholicism, without cynicism or irony, which is unexpected in contemporary art. If you don’t mind sharing, what is your relationship to this subject matter?
Well, culturally I am Catholic; I am Irish on one side, with all of the martyrs and Episcopalian conceits, and Italian Romanesque working class on the other side, with all of the pagan Marys and ecstatic mystics. I went with the Marys and mystics, but got stuck with some of the martyrs. I had marvelous teachers, the Sisters of St. Joseph, during my twelve years of Catholic schools. On a visceral physical level, all of that devotional energy and the iconography got into me. I teach art history classes at St. Michael’s College, a small progressive Edmundite college, and I always swoon rather shamelessly in front of my students when we get to Caravaggio. The Incredulity of Thomas, where Jesus is guiding the fingers of a stupefied Thomas into the wound in his side — that one slays me.
Periodically I come back to reading the mystics; Juan de Yepes y Álvarez (St. John of the Cross), who was older than Caravaggio but also contemporaneous post Reformation Baroque, is a favorite. I’ve cut and pasted snippets of English translations of his verse into my work over the years. His writings are so erotic, and queer, which is probably why his texts have been so heavily annotated and clotted up with commentary by the Carmelites over the centuries. Paul Thek was Catholic and so was Warhol, and it’s so obvious to me — the Byzantine quality of the Marilyns and the Elvises…the Elvises sparkle! I know there are those who might demure at the suggestion, but the Disasters feel like stations of the cross to me. As far as my own faith goes, there’s a great quote from Derrida, something like: I pray all the time even though I don’t believe.
In recent years, cadmium red and blood-related text has been central to your practice. I think anyone who follows you on Instagram understands your love of the seasons and gardening, but why couple blood with flowers?
I started appropriating American Red Cross affiche into my work during the AIDS disaster. With some other queer friends, we’d go to Blood Drive sites, where we couldn’t give blood of course. They’d pass out orange juice and snacks on trays to donors, but we’d pilfer the paper placemats, which I would later use as drawing surfaces. I also began to incorporate the phrase “Give Blood” into my paintings. Later I took “Mein Herze Schwimmt im Blut,” from the Bach cantata, “Blood is the magic juice” from Goethe’s Faust, and “I feel your heart beat in my throat” from the Cowboy Junkies.
Painting with red is a whole zone of experience. The color of bleeding out, and love. Think about Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, which depicts this uncanny fountain, a big “mystic lamb” bleeding from its chest into a chalice, surrounded by a crowd. And the red is repeated rhythmically throughout the composition and in the kneeling figures. It is so strange — it is another one of those paintings that astonishes me when I’m teaching. What is that painting really about? Surely something much older than the Catholics. Or think about Malevich’s magnificent Red Quadrilateral, which if you start to look for in the world, you find everywhere. And Rothko of course…red as in Aby Warburg’s sense (and I’m stretching the meaning of his concept), but a “pathosformel” — it has a life of its own.
Red is the color of the giant zinnias and the somniferum poppies, true opium poppies, that I grow in my dooryard from those seeds that Don Sunseri gave to me over 30 years ago. So the connection between the blood and the flowers? Maybe it’s the “B’s”…Blute, blut, blossoms.