Dark Victory
Christopher Pekoc at Convivium 33

Art has the potential to convey conditions and needs of the human spirit, and to do so
with the urgency of prayer or the directness of charity. It sometimes seems that the whorls
and creases of the human soul are pressed into a work of art, to testify to a transcendent

Among northern Ohio artists who have addressed the ultimate seriousness of art as an
activity that bids to reclaim damaged dimensions of the psyche, Christopher Pekoc is
preeminent. For almost four decades this painter/photographer has shown works based
on techniques involving photographic collage both in galleries in his native Cleveland, and
in New York, Germany, and Japan. Throughout that period he has invented a darkly
nuanced realm of visual metaphors dealing with politics, identity, gender, illness, and the
ways in which suffering can be transmuted into personal growth.

Pekoc, who is now in his early sixties, first exhibited in the Cleveland area as early as
1964. By the time his 25 by 20 foot mural titled Night Sky, Cleveland, was installed in the
reading room at the Cleveland Public Library in 1979 the artist was already a familiar
figure to local audiences. Since then he’s had one-person shows at Bonfoey Gallery at
regular intervals and has been included in high-profile group exhibits at the Cleveland
Museum of Art and SPACES. He also has shown in New York, recently at the John
Stevenson Gallery, and in the 1970’s at the Alex Rosenberg Gallery, when he flirted with
big-time fame after attracting the attention of New York painter Lowell Nesbitt.

It’s tempting to suppose that, if he had become a fixture of the New York scene, the
Whitney would have given him a retrospective twenty years ago. As it is, those with an
appreciation of Pekoc’s work have had to rely on their memories for any kind of survey of
his techniques and concerns over the past several decades – until now. In cooperation
with Alenka Banco of Convivium 33 Gallery, Bonfoey Gallery has mounted an exhibition
titled Evolution tracing Pekoc’s art from its beginnings to the present. The first page of the
show’s elegant catalogue, featuring an essay by noted art historian Henry Adams,
introduces us to the crowded, complex space of Pekoc’s artistic world with the phrase As
day turns into night. Both catalogue and exhibit go on to evoke the haunted crepuscule
that sets the stage for this artist’s theatrically mythic vision. The show of thirty-some works
is not nearly large enough to capture the full range of Pekoc’s efforts, but the presence of
several seminal works at least sketches a history of his development; several works on
display at Convivium have been out of circulation for decades, like his 1971 Kent Triptych.
That surrealist-influenced airbrush painting was a reaction to Pekoc’s own first-hand
experiences of the infamous shootings by the Ohio National Guard on the campus of Kent
State University, where he was briefly a painting major. At that time his working method
was to reassemble fragments of figures and objects cut from glossy magazines, deploying
them in dream-like storyboard arrangements, then reproducing them in airbrush on
canvas. The often large finished works hovered between photo-realism and abstraction,
like symbolist versions of Pop artist James Rosenquist mural-sized paintings. Pekoc’s
subtitle for the Kent piece is The events of May 4th are truly without precedent. As if to re-
create the incomprehensible, alien feeling of that tragedy Pekoc proposes a sort of
allegory: Three scuba divers in black wet suits are seen from behind as they advance into
a desert landscape. A figure in scuba mask and army uniform faces them, appearing to
thrust a civilian figure in shorts and shirt aside. Another man advances from the left,
brandishing a handgun as he moves towards mysterious wreckage a few yards distant.

It was not until the late 1980’s that the artist began stitching together photographs and
photographic transparencies (called Kodaliths) on a commercial sewing machine, making
works that are instantly recognizable as examples of his mature manner. Mostly these are
figurative, concentrating on specific symbols, such as the human hand and serpent-like
twists of material, or a net or grid of stars, or a bird’s wing. Also evident throughout his
career is an abiding interest in issues of abstraction and a gift for dynamic composition. In
fact Pekoc is in every way an artist’s artist, immersed in tight ratios of arcane aesthetic
calculations. Everything matters in a Pekoc picture, which is also always an assemblage of
parts, not unlike a low-relief sculpture. As such, each is as much about texture as form;
Pekoc scores and burns, crinkles, scars and mends almost every square inch of his
surfaces, conveying a primal sense of touch. It is no surprise that one of his subjects has
been the Garden of Eden, and the two versions of the temptation of Adam and Eve
included in Evolution both explore primal memories. They seem to recall the first shock of
human sensation, in an infinitesimal moment of decision jump-started a new universe of
pain and hope.

Almost purely abstract works, like the 1999 Kenilworth III, move even farther toward a
consideration of how form and visual sensation can be woven together to sketch the
beautiful and dangerous potencies of psychological darkness. Part map, part hieroglyph,
that all-black work shows a tangle of star-spattered linear passages, stitched into the void.
For anyone who has ever craned their neck to gaze at a clear, moonless sky packed with
constellations, Pekoc captures the vertigo and immensity – and the sheer thrill and terror
-- of the unknown as it brushes against the untidy seams of our perceptual abilities.

Pekoc’ work strives to be not so much depiction or representation as re-enactment: the
artist is a little like God at the beginning of the world, making light and darkness, then
inserting presence -- the magic of consciousness, joy, and suffering, into the fabric of time
and space. In his essay Henry Adams observes that Pekoc’s Czech heritage somehow
informs the underlying tone of his work, relating it to the maze-inflected dream worlds of
Kafka. Adams writes, “His work often feels as though it emerged not from a Cleveland
basement, but from the shadowy, vaulted rooms of some Central European castle.” He
also trenchantly observes that Cleveland, with its historic ethnic communities, “is a city
closer to Transylvania than to Boston.” Mounted on the walls of the former St. Josaphat’s
Catholic church, among columns surmounted by angels and framed by gothic arches,
Pekoc’s semi-sacred works do indeed seem like uncanny visitors from some other, older
and more mysterious time and place. His long over-due retrospective is a show of historic

[Free Times 12/27/06]