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“Stephen Petegorsky:

Gold Work”

At the Ralls Collection to June 7

Inform a serious artist that his or her work is “decorative” and you may need to put up your dukes. These days, the term most often suggests commercial-mindedness, an emphasis on usefulness over artistry, and—most damning—general triteness. Yet historically this has not always been the case. Artists’ antipathy toward producing decorative work has waxed and waned over time. A century ago, Whistler, Vuillard, and Klimt were all proud to blur the line. And as recently as the ’70s, artists such as Miriam Schapiro and Robert Kushner dubbed themselves members of the Pattern and Decoration movement.

I don’t know what Stephen Petegorsky thinks about the concept of art-as-decoration, but his series of photographic images backed by gold leaf now on display at the Ralls Collection straddles the two realms with distinction.

As a photographer, Petegorsky has wandered quite a bit during his career. His bread-and-butter income comes from photographing artworks on behalf of museums and galleries. In the late ’80s, he made straightforward black-and-white images of rural landscapes in Italy, Ireland, Costa Rica, and his home state of Massachusetts. In the early ’90s, he photographed taxidermied animals, some with their skins split from disrepair, revealing their stuffing. In the late ’90s, he documented land-mine victims in Nicaragua with a more photojournalistic approach.

The work on display at Ralls, however, is Petegorsky’s most technically complicated and aesthetically adventurous. Petegorsky takes photographs, edits them digitally, prints them with an ink-jet printer, rephotographs them on 4-by-5-inch Polaroid film, and then uses hot water to separate the emulsion, leaving just an image embedded in a thin, transparent layer. He then pastes the emulsion onto a 10-by-8-inch board coated with colored clay and gilding.

Considered in isolation, Petegorsky’s photographic images are nothing special. Their subject matter—seashells, flowers, trees—is prosaic nearly to the point of banality. They’re also rendered in high contrast and low resolution, with none of the grainy, chiaroscuro quality seen in the work of such contemporary still-life masters as Tom Baril (who exhibited at Ralls a few years back). If Petegorsky’s photographs were displayed in their original form, they’d hardly be worth a second look.

Yet the artist’s painstaking gilding process turns his source images into something extraordinary. Using gold leaf, Petegorsky creates subtle surface textures of a kind more often associated with painting than photography. Petegorsky doesn’t simply slap identical rectangles side by side. In Sunflower 2 (2001/2003), the gilding suggests stones in a wall; in Crab Shell (2002), brickwork; and in Horseshoe Crab (2000), roof shingles.

Initially, Petegorsky used people as the subjects of his gilded work: a child walking toward a distant horizon, a pipe-smoking man in a fedora. These pieces suggest Byzantine icons, but none are included in the Ralls show, which is Petegorsky’s first solo exhibition in Washington. By now, he seems to have moved on. And it turns out that the simpler his subjects, the more harmoniously they meld with the gold leaf, resulting in fanciful little pieces that display an almost Romantic attention to the wonders inherent in everyday objects.

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Consider Starfish (2001/2003). In Petegorsky’s hands, the sea creature doesn’t occupy a spatial vacuum but lies on top of a surface whose haphazard brush-gilding patterns suggest the texture of sand. In Sea Horse (1998/2002), the pockmarked finish of the gilding makes the title creature seem embedded in a rock, like some primordial fossil. And in Sunflower (2001/2003), the petals are rendered in such a wispy, translucent fashion that they appear to have been painted on—or perhaps pressed in a book. Appropriately, the gilding in this piece was laid on as if by finger painting, with whorls and curls visible everywhere.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into the thematic resonances between Petegorsky’s photographic images and the patterns of gilding he uses to provide their backing. After all, Petegorsky’s works come in editions of four, and, not having seen his multiples, I can’t say for sure that the same patterns recur in each. Still, even if the thematic links are coincidental, Petegorsky effectively uses gold—the ultimate decorative material—to supply a visual interest his source material lacks.

You can appreciate his more successful pieces by comparing them with the ones that fall short. With Petegorsky, there’s almost an inverse relationship between the impressiveness of the initial photograph and that of the finished piece. Take Square Tree (1998). In isolation, the image is compelling: It depicts a tree with leaves so well-defined you can almost picture them rustling; the tree, in turn, is contained within an unusual rectangular shape, and it towers over some tiny pedestrians and a gently receding horizon line. The image begs the viewer to follow it deep into the frame—an impulse that inevitably clashes with the two-dimensional surface imposed by the gold leaf. The same problem of depth haunts The Ride (2000/2003), whose image of an undulating, twisted segment of a roller coaster is forced awkwardly into two-dimensional space.

When Petegorsky photographs large objects from a distance, only a few of the resulting pieces succeed. In Palms, Choluteca (2000), the gilding is dotted with splatters that suggest rain droplets on a windshield—a windshield through which one might imagine seeing the row of palm trees Petegorsky depicts. And the out-of-focus subject of Carousel Horse (1998) is applied to gilding that suggests the uneven texture of clay or rock; together, these elements combine to mimic the look of a cave wall with a horse sketched out by some prehistoric artist.

More often, it’s the close-up images that provide the most effective grist for Petegorsky. In Leaf (2001/2003), for instance, the gilding comes with numerous nicks and cuts that reveal portions of the clay backing. These small voids echo the missing bits of dry leaf visible in the photographic image. Thematically, too, the leaf’s crumbling appearance can be read as a symbol of the fragility of Petegorsky’s finished works. In his artist’s statement, Petegorsky explains that his gilded pieces are inspired by the deteriorating surfaces of old photos and paintings, as well as by the pathos evoked by the passage of time. Certainly his earlier series of diorama photographs traveled similar territory, with Petegorsky’s lens apt to linger over the taxidermied animals’ visible scars.

Nowhere is this melancholic fascination with decay clearer than in Black Bird (1998), a work that has to be seen as an homage to Albert Pinkham Ryder’s iconic oil painting The Dead Bird. For someone so concerned with the delicate textures of his artworks’ surfaces, Petegorsky could have done a lot worse than model himself after Ryder, a painter who was so obsessed with textures and finishes that he wound up using techniques that actually hindered his works’ long-term survivability.

Though The Dead Bird and Black Bird feature the same golden-yellow background and similarly worked surfaces, there are also important differences between the two pieces. Whereas Ryder’s bird is unmistakably dead, Petegorsky’s is so alive it’s practically crowing. It’s a crucial difference: For all his discussion of the passing of time, Petegorsky seems to be most concerned with timelessness and resilience. Icons, fossils, and cave paintings may seem fragile, but many of them have also, somehow, made it to the present, just as evocative as ever. The unmistakable vibrancy of Black Bird suggests an artistic vision that is attuned as much to the living as to the dead. CP