Simple But Not So Simple: The Art of Victor Pesce

harbor3Victor Pesce, Harbor 3 (2009), oil on canvas, 24-1/8″ x 30-1/16″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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The following essay was originally published in the catalogue accompanying Victor Pesce, a 2001 exhibition at Elizabeth Harris Gallery and is posted here on the occasion of Victor Pesce: Selections 1978-2010 at Elizabeth Harris Gallery (April 20-July 26).

Victor Pesce paints pictures of simple things, but the pictures he paints are not so simple. Certainly, his still-life paintings are unadorned. A few pieces of fruit, a couple of bottles, a milk carton or coffee cup–that’s all he needs to pique his interest, to set the pictorial snowball rolling. These items are seen situated against flat expanses of dusky color, mottled fields which are, at the barest maximum, demarcated by a horizon line. Yet even without that line–that not-quite-Platonic table top–we read Pesce’s still-lifes as occupying space, as things that “sit.” It is with this nod to gravity that he lets us know that however spare–or, if you prefer, abstracted–his paintings may be, they are irrevocably of this world.

Pesce’s art is hard-won, but plain-spoken, roughhewn in its clarity. Although their surfaces evince a history of painterly give-and-take, the pictures themselves are absent of fuss or muss. Whether it be a bottle, a box or the stray posey, Pesce bestows upon the objects of his attention an inquisitive, just-short-of-tenacious regard. In doing so, he locates both its essence and its pith without settling decisively on either. Pesce couldn’t, in other words, care less about absolutes; “pairing down” is not the Pesce approach. So while each canvas declares that things are pretty much what they seem, it also insists that things are more than what they appear. If anything, the more Pesce focuses on a particular still life the more allusive it becomes.

pinkboxbrownwallVictor Pesce, Pink Box, Brown Wall (2007), oil on canvas, 8″ x 8″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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You see this in the nudgy relationships he divines between his subjects and the peculiar–and peculiarly stubborn–life they take on. In one painting, a quartet of lemons engages in a pokey game of courtship. In another, a duo of soda bottles huddle together awaiting a verdict. In Pesce’s hands, a brick and a rock aren’t inanimate objects, but parties who have reached a tenuous and grudging agreement. These are muted, barely discernible dramas–pivotal morsels of some unknowable narrative given a gruff independence. One could trot out the word “poetic” in describing Pesce’s transformations, yet “poetry seems too highfalutin’ a conceit for paintings as down to earth as these. What he does is closer to magic–a magic so unassuming that it barely knows its name.

blackandwhitefruitVictor Pesce, Black and White Fruit (1999), oil on canvas, 18″ x 24″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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Pesce’s is a slow art, one for which time is not only a prerequisite, but its leitmotif. Asking us to work our eye with as much forbearance as went into their making, the pictures extend a blunt, take-it-or-leave-it respect–a kind of challenge. They dare us to stop and a look and then look some more. Pesce doesn’t operate on the belief that an artist’s worth is measured by how much he co-opts a culture made breathless by technology and its efficiencies. He puts brush to canvas as a means of regaining a sense of measure and proportion, of achieving a no-nonsense wonderment. His paintings make us realize that the simple things around us aren’t as simple as we think.

© 2001 Mario Naves

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