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Georgetown University art professor Peter Charles rarely turns on his television. When he does, he sticks to PBS and the news. But unlike many academics, Charles doesn’t rant against the idiot box. “New Work,” his current exhibition at Irvine Contemporary Art, consists of eight tiny flat-screen TVs that broadcast real-time images from local networks. The sets are enclosed inside exquisitely sculpted 8-inch-high house-shaped wire structures that grow from steel bases.
“For a long time I’ve wanted to make a piece of sculpture that had moving images in it…My interest is not in what’s on TV, just the fact of TV,” says Charles, whose earlier work has included oil paintings on steel and totemic sculptures of objects piled atop one another.
A native Washingtonian who lives in Chevy Chase, Charles was initially inspired by the “experience of walking down the street at dusk and noticing a TV going on in all of the houses. In most cases, you see it obliquely. You’re aware of it through reflections,” he says.
Last year, Charles found himself experimenting with smaller LCD screens originally designed to fit into the backs of headrests in cars. He found that they served his purposes perfectly, possessing tiny tuners that can pick up local broadcasts. The screens’ diminutive size led Charles in a new direction, and he soon started making his first two “TV houses.” In House, a cartoonish plexiglass house obscures a flickering television panel. In House of Mirrors, which consists of a see-through steel grid embedded with a few small mirrors, the images on the panel are visible only in reflection. Charles says that the mirrors draw viewers into the work to “populate” the house.
According to gallery owner Martin Irvine, “The owner [of the artwork] becomes a kind of producer or co-producer of the artwork by turning it on, choosing the channel, and viewing whatever images are displayed.” But Charles disagrees: “[A]s we all know, it’s totally out of your control.” He enjoys the unpredictability of the televised images.
The artist cites Constantine Brancusi’s emphasis on the relationship between sculpture and base as an influence. In Torn House, a shattered plaster structure rests on a steel plinth. Charles spent hours trying to make one of the corners of the base look broken. But the “faux broken corner looked too fussy and contrived,” he laments. Ultimately, Charles chose to use a simple steel slab because it was “more honest and straightforward.”
Torn House also reflects Charles’ fascination with the presence of working televisions in the bombed-out houses of people living in war zones. “Every day you see on the news…wherever there’s conflict and destruction and war, they’ll often still have a TV going in the house….After having running water, the next necessity is to be connected [to television],” he says.
Although the artist is reluctant to make pronouncements about television’s connection to the homogenization of global culture, the word “connect” does come up a lot in conversations. “When I lived alone,” Charles remembers, “I’d come home and turn the TV or the radio on to feel connected with something outside myself….It’s not something profound. It’s just one of those little things that everybody can relate to.”—Bidisha Banerjee