Los Angeles

Jon Peterson


In his new work, a series of small shelters deposited at sites around downtown Los Angeles’ skid row, JON PETERSON has neatly grafted function and relevance onto the sadly barren tree of public sculpture, thereby infecting both the milk-fed G.S.A. branch and the adjustably megalomaniacal site-specific one.

Peterson’s work is small, portable, and playfully painted in bright primary colors. It is made to cover one supine body in relative comfort or more if desired. So much for scale, site-specificty, and color.

Intended as refuges for urban vagrants, Peterson made and put out four of the shelters in advance of the show, then photographed them in use. The first was a flattened tube, one end sealed, which Peterson planted, open end up, in an odd-shaped space between factory parking lots across the street from his studio. The piece was interesting as sculpture, but as shelter it was positioned at too steep an incline to be slept in comfortably. Within weeks someone laid the thing prone and occupied it. The succeeding shelters—a small igloo, a curved lean-to, and a long wedge meant to be supported by converging chain link fences—were easier to move and, because more open, easier to guard.

The exhibition included two new, unused structures, some models for proposed shelters, a slide chronicle of the shelters’ habitation to date, and four photo-documentations, stills from the slide sequence. Peterson’s photography is as clinical, and seems to have been accomplished as unobtrusively as possible. The photo-collages describe the first weeks of each shelter’s existence on the street, and each collage is in an edition of ten. Peterson’s iconoclasm extends to financing the work, since each of the photo drawings is meant as a prospectus for partial ownership of the shelter it documents. Ideally, each shelter would be a cooperatively sponsored venture with ten investors backing Peterson’s labors. But possession of the art object is subject to squatters’ rights.

Peterson’s work, which has moved from field-situation to body-object and back over the past six years, is marked by a consistently cool temperament—never toward materials and requisite skills, rather toward the effect generated by the art he produces. The big, square paintings on vellum and the spray-painted-to-irridescence wall at Newspace of two years ago established large fields with notations from the process of their making. By their sizes the “bum shelters” (as he calls them) recall the painted lattice structures he made in 1975–76 which were nothing so much as dress dummies for a private geometry.

The effect Peterson seems to have been after all the while, judging from this recent work, is extra-esthetic. The bum shelters are comfortably within the tradition, for want of a better word, of guerrilla art. In this anti-genre, parody gives way to possibilities.

Richard Armstrong