Robert Pelegrin’s Desert Visions: A Compelling Argument
The late Robert Pelegrin (1949-2007) made monoprints, mostly of the American southwest, which now, fifteen years after his death, offer an opportunity to think about how art appeals, and why people collect it and keep it, or not. Pelegrin’s prints are unmistakably beautiful and technically accomplished, so much so that Deep Dive Art Projects proprietor Bellamy Printz –a printmaker herself, as well as being an appraiser and consultant–put them on view in the winter months, a time when she planned to let the gallery at Deep Dive Art Projects go dark so she could take a break. They’re up through March 19.
Key to the appeal of these prints is the artist’s skill, and also a paradoxical synergy between their subject and their size. The southwest landscape is, of course, inescapably huge. An artist taking this up is challenged to capture vast spaces, gigantic rocks and scraggly shrubs, and long views to the horizon. Pelegrin chose to do this at the opposite scale. His biggest prints in this exhibit are perhaps 10 inches on a side, and many are smaller. In monoprints, every mark becomes visible: the details are created by the drawing, smudging, wiping, and smearing of ink. In these, the synergy between subject and size has to do with the proportion of the artist’s gestures as they relate to the features of the scenes. A gesture, as the artist moved ink across the plate, makes a facet of a rock, and simultaneously forms streaks that perfectly represent striations in the rock itself, at the scale the vista demands. As Printz said, “he has figured something out and is playing with it.” This element alone is worth a trip to the gallery.
Pelegrin’s control over the density of his ink is also absolutely remarkable, creating light and shadows and depth perception, especially in the monochromatic work. In one nearly transparent sky, the spaces wiped clean form wispy clouds. In another, the sharp edges of a sickle moon. There are color monoprints that show that skill, but the one-color impressions lay it bare, with no place to hide.
Robert Pelegrin is not a name well known in Northeast Ohio. According to a biography by his nephew Jonathan Clemente, he was born in Cleveland, graduated from Cathedral Latin High School and studied history at John Carroll University. But he left the area in 1970—first for Boston, where he studied watercolor and then, at the Experimental Etching studio there, took up printmaking. He left Boston for New Mexico in the early 1980s. While his work in Boston had been largely figurative, and while some of what he left behind are colorful depictions of flowers and feathers, as well as some abstraction, he truly found his muse in the Southwest landscape.
Clemente (who was inspired by his uncle to enroll at the Cleveland Institute of Art) says Pelegrin didn’t make images of specific, identifiable places, but instead of imagined landscapes based on recollections of what he had seen while hiking. While the scenes show what would be memorable, distinctive details—natural arches, monumental rock formations—they are more inspired than actual. They are about the place in a general sense, but just as much about experimentation with ink.
Over the course of 20+ years, Pelegrin had more than a dozen group shows, a handful of two-person shows, and a couple of solo shows mostly in Taos and Albuquerque. There were a few reviews in regional magazines, and one in the long-running, but now defunct American Artist magazine. The Harwood Museum of Art in Taos, and The Albuquerque Museum have examples of his work in their collections. That’s not a gigantic track record after a lifetime of art making. Since his death, his family in Cleveland has organized a few exhibits to keep his legacy alive, including at Case Western Reserve’s MSASS Gallery, at Zygote Press, and now at Deep Dive.
All that makes Pelegrin a printmaker’s printmaker, or perhaps a gem for collectors who know the skill they are looking at. Nonetheless, ensuring a legacy for such an artist after he has passed away is challenging. The artist’s presence in a community helps sell their art. If people buy art to support the artist, that is no longer necessary after the artist passes away. If they buy it for investment value, that depends on the artist being well-known, or somehow posthumously becoming well-known. If the motivation comes from some connection to the subject matter—in the case of the landscapes, perhaps because you have been to the place represented—these might almost fill that bill, but as imagined landscapes, never quite.
However, if you buy art simply because you love it and want to have it on your wall, or because it shows impressive technical accomplishment, or simply because it is beautiful and you can’t help yourself, Robert Pelegrin makes an absolutely compelling argument.
Robert Pelegrin: Desert Visions
by Appointment December 2, 2022 – March 19, 2023
Open noon – 4 pm Sunday, March 5
Deep Dive Art Projects
423 East 156th Street
Cleveland, OH 44119
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