Damaged by Hand: Five years after his last solo show in Northeast Ohio, the Akron Art Museum presents a new look at Christopher Pekoc

Christopher Pekoc was a high school misfit. Art was his salvation. Today his studio is in an almost windowless basement in the Tremont neighborhood of Cleveland. It’s filled with industrial file cabinets he salvaged from a store that failed. The drawers are stuffed with photographs that he has taken, clippings from magazines, sheets of unusual paper.


Balancing Blue, by Christopher Pekoc

Balancing Blue, by Christopher Pekoc

He has tools of all sorts that he uses in his work: a blowtorch, scissors, hammers, hole punches, sandpaper and steel wool. There are bulletin boards that go from floor to ceiling on several walls. Pinned to them are images of branches, bird’s wings, eyes, hands, feet, arms, and heads. The path to a finished piece is often slow and unpredictable. Body parts, thorny sticks, and all those other elements move around in ever-changing combinations. Occasionally he hears gunshots, but mostly he’s sealed off from the world outside.


Pekoc’s basement studio has been a productive place, but Northeast Ohio hasn’t seen the results in some time. That’s about to change. Five years after his last solo show here (at Tregoning & Co. in 2009), the Akron Art Museum will present Christopher Pekoc: Hand Made. Opening in November, it will be Pekoc’s second museum exhibition this year, following another (with Oklahoma artist Romy Owens) that opened last Spring at the Amarillo Museum of Art in Texas. The Akron exhibition is organized by chief curator Janice Driesbach.


It’s worth noting that the Akron Art Museum has produced over the years a series of path-breaking and historically significant exhibitions of contemporary art, ranging from the very first museum show of art-world superstar Cindy Sherman in 1981, to the recent traveling exhibition (also a first) of monumental works by the art world’s current darling, El Anatsui. The Akron Museum has also frequently showcased the work of this region’s finest contemporary artists, and Pekoc has certainly earned his place.


For decade after decade, often in the face of very real financial hardship, the Tremont resident has produced haunting, challenging, visually provocative work. After cutting things apart and moving them around, he then sews them together in new ways. His work is in equal parts beautiful and unsettling. Several people have been reminded of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory, where pieces of bodies are sewn together.


Chris’s great-grandfather came to Cleveland from Czechoslovakia after his parents died of cholera. He eventually saved up money to open a saloon and hardware store. And this evolved into a chain of several hardware stores that lasted three generations.


After graduating from high school, Chris worked in the family business. There he grew to love tools and home repair materials. But he spent his spare time making drawings, which won a series of local awards. In his mid-twenties, he had one man shows at two Ohio universities and a regional art museum. Chris attended Kent State but never graduated. In the early 1970s he began to make paintings with an air brush, based on magazine photographs he collaged together.


He was at Kent State on the day of the infamous student shootings, but things were so confused that he didn’t understand what had happened until he watched the evening news.To capture the feeling of the event he created a large painting based on clipped photographs from magazines combined in a strange surrealist collage.


In 1978 he created a mural for the main reading room of the Cleveland Public Library. In 1988 he began to teach at Case Western Reserve University, and also joined a photography class at the Cleveland Institute of Art.


In 1989, he was in a nightclub in the flats when he saw on the dance floor an amazing woman with a shaved head. She became his muse. He began to make life size photographs, cutting them apart, and sewing them together in new combinations.


Many people think of the surface of a photograph as something pure, something that shouldn’t be altered or desecrated. For Chris it’s just a starting point. He likes to manipulate the paper by folding, wrinkling, scratching perforating, and coating it with paint, varnish, and shellac. Abraded edges flicker like stars in the night sky. He often applies coating to the distressed materials to enrich their patina. At times the abraded surfaces have the feel of motorcycle jackets.


Much of his imagery stems from his Catholic childhood. The subjects are often religious or mythological: Adam and Eve; Hermes; Saint Sebastian. He sews on hearts, snakes, lilies, bird’s wings, rope, arrows, and thorns. Sometimes he roughens the surfaces. Sometimes he covers them with mtetal leaf. Often the forms emerge from an inky darkness.


Night: One Hidden, Other in plain sight, by Christopher Pekoc

Night: One Hidden, Other in plain sight, by Christopher Pekoc

Pekoc is interested in wounds, abraded surfaces, lines of stress. A certain imperfection in his work symbolizes life’s imperfections: in short, he explores “the beauty of damage” (which is the title of a catalog compiled by Henry Adams and published by Case Western Reserve University in 2008, and a of short Telos documentary). The artists who have most inspired him form a curious list, but all are preoccupied with tragedy and suffering: Andrew Wyeth, Francis Bacon, Richard Diebenkorn, Antonio Tapies, and the photographers Jan Saudek and Arnulf Reiner.


In an essay on Pekoc’s assemblages in 21st: The Journal of Contemporary Photography, photography historian John Wood has compared the effect of Pekoc’s work to the “shimmering mosaics of Ravenna” and “the paintings of Gustav Klimt,” while Cleveland artist and critic Douglas Max Utter has noted that their process of cutting and stitching suggest “a metaphor for the psychological repair and stitching back together of the self.”


The current exhibition mostly contains works created by Pekoc since 1992, and focuses on images of faces and hands, features critical to conveying emotions. Pekoc regards both the faces and the hands as a form of portraiture. He comments:


“As Thomas Eakins once remarked, a hand is every bit as individual and as hard to paint as a human face. These hand portraits are about the people to whom these hands belong. They are every bit as much a portrait as the faces. We do everything with our hands. Our accomplishments become what we are even more than what we look like. So a true portrait of someone is what they’ve done with their hands over a lifetime.”


As it happens, among the earliest works of art created by man are paintings of hands produced with a sort of spray paint technique on the walls of prehistoric caves in France and Spain.They were not easy to make. First it was necessary to chew animal fat and pigment until it was a gooey consistency. Then the artists blew the pigment over their hands, creating an image in reverse. We don’t know the purpose of these images, though some of them seem to have served a role in prehistoric rituals, in which people of all ages, from grown men and women to small children, touched these handprints. Touching hands is one of the most fundamental forms of establishing fellowship and communication, and images of hands somehow express something fundamental about what it means to be human. For all its modernity, Pekoc’s work also resonates powerfully with some of the most ancient and mysterious examples of art made by human hands.


Henry Adams is Ruth Coulter Heede Professor of Art History at Case Western Reserve University


Christopher Pekoc: Hand Made

November 15, 2014 to April 26, 2015

Akron Museum of Art

One South High

Akron, Ohio 44308