Review for Subjective Icons by Bob Pelfrey
Leslie Sutcliffe 2/8/2004

San Luis Obispo’s new gallery, compact, has been transformed for its second exhibition. Twenty-six mixed media drawings by the artist Bob Pelfrey hang in a continuous frieze suspended away from the walls in this small but pristine space. The drawings are clipped to a structure that is barely visible from the front. From the back it looks like a section of hot wheel’s track turned on its side but designed and fabricated by consummate craftsmen. The compact partners certainly are that. After a long look at the drawings, which are presented to their great advantage in this way, the curious may want to peek behind to see how it’s done.

Like the wildly popular novel The Da Vinci Code, Bob Pelfrey’s drawings create a narrative that fuses Catholic iconography and images of the sacred feminine. Both the artist and the novel place this narrative in a contemporary context. Pelfrey titles his exhibition Subjective Icons. Knowing something about his biography and artistic process helps with the interpretation of the work.

Bob Pelfrey is a well-respected art instructor at Cuesta College. He teaches art history, drawing and a seminar titled: Art, Dreams and Creativity. All of these subjects are evident in his work. His love of baseball is legendary. Some summers he travels across country in his van, visiting regional art museums and attending minor league baseball games. In this show, his drawing surfaces are maps taken from the type of road atlas he probably brings along on his trips.

Although the maps provide a metaphor for the work as a whole, the individual maps do not seem to be chosen for their particular content or location. Their form, though, provides the design structure for the drawings. Sometimes the edge of a drawing will follow the ragged line of a river or winding road. This formal integration drew me in. It kept me moving back and forth between the layers of meaning. Smaller detail maps are inset into the larger maps and serve as places for the artist to add collage or small drawings. Skulls, subtle erotica and Egyptian-like profiles are some of the images that can be found in these areas, all exquisitely and expressively drawn.

In the atlas the maps were paired; in the case of the first set of drawings, New York sits next to Missouri. This duality is reinforced by Pelfrey’s working method. He draws on the page of maps. He then photocopies the map drawing and reworks both the map drawing and the photocopy. These pairings underscore the content of the work. Dualities of male/female and Christian/pagan, among others, occur throughout the series.

Disparate images come together in these drawings as they would in a dream. For many years Pelfrey has recorded his dreams, and used personal dream imagery in his artwork. In Subjective Icons he also appropriates frescos from the Legend of the True Cross Cycle by Piero della Francesca. The frescos are found in the Church of San Francesco in Arezzo, Italy.

Many contemporary artists take images from art history, mass media and advertising. They place the images, altered or not, into a new context, thereby changing their meaning. Often this change of context reveals the hidden assumptions and biases of the original work. Pelfrey explains in his artist’s statement that by changing the context of the fresco cycle he became acutely aware of its anti-Semitism.

The dreamer also appropriates images and events and gives them new meaning in the context of the dream. Rather than imitate Piero’s style, Pelfrey paints the True Cross Cycle in an illustrative manner that reminds me of pictures in my childhood history books. The rather stiff style of these paintings contrasts with the expressive and facile drawing in other passages, rendered mostly in black and white. It is as if these frescos have not been fully integrated into the dreamer’s personal iconography but still exist somewhere outside.

The narrative of Christianity and the sacred female was most obvious to me in the third set of drawings. On maps of Northern Idaho and Boston, Saint Francis, hands spread apart in a characteristic gesture, lectures to the birds. Beneath the bird-filled tree lies a female figure, as if underground. The tree seems to grow from her body. The artist reinterprets the Biblical story, divesting it of its patriarchal bias.

Ultimately the experience of looking at these drawings was much more gratifying for me than reading The Da Vinci Code. In the book the story races toward its surprising conclusion, tying up all loose ends. The drawings are more like a meandering road trip; for each answer the journey provides, a detour raises a new question.


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