JJ PEET – Renegade Acts

JJ PEET’s work isn’t easy to pin down. He is a painter, a sculptor and a video artist, yet his practice and process are anything but conventional. A recent graduate of the prestigious MFA at Yale University, JJ PEET skillfully combines an art historical approach with a quasi-experimental modus operandi that allows him to construct complex narratives through sculpture, video and painting; addressing current events, the lingering economic crisis, our obsession with the image and the indiscernible line between news and entertainment. Through his work, PEET isn’t afraid to push the boundaries of the political, cultural and artistic establishment.

Art Making as a Political Act:
The Resistants and The Luxury Leaders

Robert Rauschenberg is quoted for saying that the artist’s job is to be a witness to his time in history. But it seems that we are increasingly confronted as viewers with artworks that are completely alienated from their social and political landscape; works that over-aestheticize the object by privileging formal sensibilities to conceptual ones. In a time when Pop Art emphasized the pervasiveness of popular culture and commercial imagery, Rauschenberg was one of the few artists related to the movement who used his practice to call attention to the social and political climate of the time. In Signs (1970), for example, Rauschenberg summarizes the momentous 60’s by depicting some of the decade’s most marking events, including the war in Vietnam and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and JFK. However, it seems nowadays artists are a little bit too complacent. In fact, few visual artists today dare take the risk of tackling issues such as the war on terror or the ceaseless economic crisis. Escapism seems to be abundant. A responsive and engaged artist, PEET’s practice offers a critical approach to current events, mass conformity, commodification and class struggle.

“Money itself isn't lost or made, it's simply transferred from one perception to another.” Gordon Gekko, the infamous and ruthless corporate maverick played by Michael Douglas in the 1987 movie Wall Street had a point, albeit a mischievous one. PEET uses this quote from the movie in one of his ‘TV episodes’ to highlight how shifts in perception can be translated not only to the visual, but also to economics and politics. His first solo exhibition at On Stellar Rays titled The TV Show, which gathered painting, sculpture and video, centered around two conflicting operational modes, The Luxury Leaders and The Resistants. On the one hand, white-collar corporate America, on the other, a clandestine ‘black glove’ operative seeking to crush middle management. A class battle. Tying in these elements together, five 15 minute ‘TV episodes’ broadcast live through a wireless feed from an undisclosed location, and shown in the basement of the gallery each Saturday afternoon. Each week, PEET would combine personal footage gathered over the years, audio collected from the news and stop-motion animation to construct each segment. The episodes, titled ‘This week’s kernels’, plays off of the idea of the news as increasingly becoming a source of entertainment. Evidenced by the imperceptibility between reality programming, news information and fictional narratives, “television has become the advertising or propaganda medium par excellance.”1

But PEET’s The TV Show offers more than just an economic confrontation, it also showcases the artist’s process, which evidences his unconventional and very political take on art-making. Each of the 15 sculptures on view were made in 60 second increments; the artist has a 60 second timer that controls all the lights and the music in his studio solely for this purpose. For PEET, it’s a way to place some type of restrictions on art production, to force creativity to a very specific timeframe as opposed to more conventional ways of sculpture making, while using the immediacy of materials often found lying around the studio. Luxury Leader Voodoo Doll, for instance, is composed of disparate elements such as carrots, dog hair, a silver spoon and pins. Other sculptures such as The Resistant’s Game Piece and Luxury Leader War Kit have similar makeshift aesthetics that also point back to the overall political tone of the exhibition. PEET’s time-controlled process is also a part of each TV episode, as he gives himself one week before each episode’s airing to put together all the elements that will comprise one of his pastiches. But can we can aptly say then that both PEET’s work and process is political or ideologically motivated? Are these works intended to provoke awareness or are they only reflections of how the manipulation of images translate to the commodification of art?

Class Acts: Painting as an Elitist Activity

But PEET doesn’t focus his efforts solely on sculpture and video. In his most recent exhibition of works titled The Sunday Painter, PEET seemingly abandons part of his activist antics to focus his attention on the act of painting. But a closer look reveals a similar albeit more nuanced rendering of economic and political concerns. The show gathered a group of small format acrylic on wood geometric abstractions, as well as video episodes titled ‘The Sunday Painter Show,’ composed on a weekly basis by PEET and projected at the gallery every Sunday at noon. The title of the exhibition refers to the act of painting as a leisure activity, which translates to the commodification of art and the ways that painting has become a stratified medium.

But in PEET’s world, the act of painting forms an integral part of the clandestine ‘resistant’ sub-culture. All of the paintings on view were finished at PEET’s mobile studio put up in the basement of the gallery, where he worked on them a couple of months before the exhibition’s opening. Conceived more out of sheer necessity than anything else (his small studio in Brooklyn measures a mere 3ft x 5ft), PEET’s transportable studio is an elaborate workspace where he has developed a wooden track system that enables him to assemble it anywhere in a couple of days. This way of working has allowed PEET the flexibility and freedom to work from anywhere in the world, given an appropriate space.

The paintings that comprised the main part of the show are geometric approximations that compared to PEET’s previous sculptures and videos seem a little hard to decipher. Fake Painting is a self-referential mockery, while Cover ups is a process motivated painting where a plate was placed on a wood panel and displaced over time while applying thick layers of paint. Echoing the painterly focus of the show, the Sunday Painter Show episodes were composed in a slower more leisurely pace. These episodes waver between images of geometric patterns to more narrative sequences; from more figurative painterly elements such as a nature morte to more commonplace ones like a thread looming over the screen. The opening and closing of a curtain at the beginning an end of each episode adds to the theatricality of the work. According to PEET, “putting videos together is like making a painting. Each sequence is a brushstroke.”2 And although motivated by more personal concerns, they are not devoid of political subtleties. In all of the episodes, the image of a lingering helicopter seen from below is a reminder of constant surveillance. An ominous sign that we are being closely watched.

Beyond the Frame: Towards a Politics of Perception

Perhaps we are shifting towards a more political rendering of perception. Whereas Merleau-Ponty wrote about the philosophical aspect of perception through phenomenology, in its critique contemporary thinkers such as Paul Virilio speak about the ethics of perception and hint at its politicization. We often hear the proverb ‘seeing is believing’, but we know this is far from true. Perception management as a political tactic is often overused and unfortunately overlooked. Viewers take at face value everything they see in the media, when in reality information is filtered and processed much like PEET’s video episodes. So, what kind of perceptual shifts is PEET proposing? Are we looking at a more ideologically engaged artistic practice? PEET’s work stands out for its desire to go beyond the purely formal aspects of visual culture and tackle the real issues. It’s not about outsider art, it’s about having something to say.

Originally published on ARTPULSE Magazine