New York

Michael Peglau

Arthur Roger Gallery

In his new paintings, Michael Peglau does something fascinating with the figure in landscape, a subject too often employed in the service of banal expression, by critiquing a number of impulses symbolic, narrative, and voyeuristic—that this subject has traditionally served. Peglau animates his archetypal Western sites with sensuous paint handling, rich color, and radiant light effects. Instead of simply providing contemplative images of nature’s beauties, however, he takes a more provocative tack, using the land-scape as a setting for situations fraught with tensions and potential dangers. This was especially the case with the paintings depicting people armed with guns.

A curious air of detachment pervades paintings such as Pistol Loader, 1989–90. Here the relationship of figure and landscape is key to triggering the emotive effects of the gripping circumstances presented. Executed in a tight, graphic, realist style, incorporating an illusionistic use of shadow, the figure of the man loading his weapon pushes itself forward as the work’s dominant motif, keying the feeling-tinged analytic response called forth by the composition. Every aspect of this figure is provocative, from his pose in profile to his placement toward the left edge (but with landscape, nevertheless, surrounding him on both sides), to his extreme frontal placement with his body cropped just above the knees. This is a result of Peglau’s almost clinical objectivity, his method of rendering that comes across as both sure and very cool. Although sun-scorched earth rolls back to meet a horizontal expanse of sky to the left and right of the figure, and there was no ostensible target for this marksman in view, the idea of one was no less strongly present for its absence. As to the identity of the target, this question raises the possibility that what was absent helped to determine the painting’s meaning. Who is the man with the gun? A good old boy out for some harmless target practice or a potential murderer?

Even in the most ordinary situations, such as the one depicted in Van, 1991, a painting in which two people stand by their vehicle, it is the construction of the visual information that fuels the viewer’s curiosity. In this work, the small scale of the figures hint at a possible vulnerability and hence danger. By plunging us headlong into the grip of a particular moment, the meaning of which is dependent on an unspecified past and future, Peglau, in the best spirit of pictorial fun and games, leaves the outcome of the tale he is telling up to us.

Ronny Cohen