Pedro Pedro and KATSU at The Hole in New York City

August 23rd, 2020  |  Published in Summer 2020

Over the past few weeks small galleries have opened while major museums remain closed. This is a blessing as well as a curse for the artists who get to exhibit their work again. On the one hand, they are sure to receive undivided attention from buyers and admirers eager to see what they came up with during quarantine. On the other, the shadow of that quarantine is sure to loom over their exhibits. Information moves faster today than it did yesterday; the new normal has already become normal and those who wish to comment on it better have something very interesting to say.

“Still Life” by Pedro Pedro
Image source: The Hole

Pedro Pedro’s Still Life features still lifes that are not your ordinary still lifes. When the genre first rose to prominence in the seventeenth century, its chief purpose was to portray the wealth of the subject via depicting the objects that they owned. Although modern iterations are no longer as obsessed with status, they continue to tell of an unseen subject. In the case of Pedro Pedro’s work, this subject is a painter, a smoker, and a lover of fruit—particularly lemons. They are either a woman, or a womanizer. They consume a fair amount of alcohol, and have a habit of making tea and then forgetting to drink it.

The Hole introduces these paintings by saying that “no humans are present in the exhibition.” While it may seem as though the writer is stating the obvious, this isn’t the case. Traditionally, still lifes included carefully arranged objects; the human hand was always present by way of the painting’s intentionality. Not here. The majority of the works depict a cacophony of items whose organization is all but non-existent. They were not placed, but thrown, stashed, put down, or lost. Their setting is no fancy dining table; most of the time, a couch or a chair proves more than sufficient.

Still Life is as appropriate a title for this exhibit as the still life genre is fitting for the times we live in. Indeed, neither promotional material nor press coverage appears capable of talking about Pedro Pedro’s work without putting in context of the pandemic. Then again, the same can be said for the artist himself. “Completing a show largely about claustrophobia and home/work spaces,” he told Juxtapoz, “when no longer being permitted to leave said spaces, has allowed for the work to take on a new sort of relevance.” Isolation even pops up in his methodology. Rather than carefully studying the objects, Pedro Pedro prefers to draw them from his mind.

As far as artistic influences go, Pedro Pedro evidently borrows from Picasso, Cézanne, and the rest of their contemporaries when it comes to upsetting the genre conventions set forth by the old masters. But the painter whom I am reminded of most of all when touring this gallery is Vincent Van Gogh, specifically his Bedroom in Arles. That painting, like most of Van Gogh’s mature work, possesses a feverish quality which bleeds through the canvas not only by way of the oddly specific arrangement, but also thanks to its enhanced, borderline-psychedelic or “drunken” textures.

According to his biographers Van Gogh was a lonely person whose intense focus on the space around him, presented clearly in his art, was rooted in his own solitude. Pedro Pedro’s interviews give off a similar impression. Without any living, breathing people to keep him company, he—like Van Gogh—turns his environment into a compatriot. The night stand that houses our miscellaneous belongings—those things which we normally discard without a second thought as we hurl ourselves into the outside world—suddenly becomes our entire universe, and that is a scary thought.

“Dot” by KATSU
Image source: The Hole

Where Pedro Pedro comments on the social ramifications of the pandemic through his subject matter, KATSU relies on his unique methodology. For his third-ever solo exhibition, the anonymous American-Japanese graffiti artist used a drone which he programmed alongside some Russian engineers to spray paint a room inside The Hole with a randomized pattern of colored dots. The result, as with most things artificial intelligence-related, is not at all random, but the outcome of a calculated partnership between man and machine.

That partnership, by the way, took quite a while to establish. According to online sources, KATSU first began developing methods of applying drone technology to spray painting back in 2007 when he became a research fellow at the Free Art and Technology Lab collective. Several years later his first artworks made with prototype drones finally debuted, yet they were rudimentary. Seeking to advance his machine’s eye for precision, the artist teamed up with Tsuru Robotics, a small R&D startup based out of Moscow, where he would eventually develop systems that were truly autonomous.

The street artist’s growing interest in machinery is a lot more logical and natural than you might initially expect as, contrary to traditional painting, graffiti has a strong non-human element to it. Whereas the brush does more or less what the hand wielding it demands, spray paint containers dispose of their contents in a somewhat preemptively regulated manner. According to WIRED, drones perpetuate this trend of relinquishing control even if, as far as the artist himself is concerned, it’s more about expanding “collaborative decisions.”

Drones can also enhance graffiti by allowing the artist to reach places which would otherwise remain inaccessible on foot. KATSU himself demonstrated the power of this new method in 2015, when he used a drone to vandalize a six-story-tall billboard in SoHo depicting a Calvin Klein advertisement featuring Kendall Jenner. From its earliest inception, street art has always been about pushing boundaries, making your mark on places where you’re not ‘supposed to be.’ Calvin and the cops may claim that KATSU committed a crime; artists will say he was expanding his canvas.

The theme of vandalism also permeates his exhibit at the gallery. Its owners put up a select number of canvasses beforehand, but KATSU’s drones didn’t know that. Relying exclusively on their program, they sprayed here and there. Sometimes, they hit the mark. Sometimes, they hit half. Most times, they just sprayed wherever they wanted, including atop the walls and even on parts of the floor. For this reason, the exhibit has turned into a “total installation,” meaning that the art work leaps off the canvas—literally—to encompass the entire space, thus making the exhibit temporary in nature as, like graffiti, it exists in a public space and so is perpetually in danger of being erased by the authorities.

–Tim Brinkhof

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