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
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.