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Tales Told

The works of Baton Rouge sculptor Jonathan Pellitteri are more than just beautiful; they’re “silent conversations.”

Trinity (An Allegory for Greed and Salvation), Water Filter and Waiting for a Response

Like the rivers that flow through the poetry of Langston Hughes, the waters of the Mississippi run through the wordless, visual poetry of Jonathan Pellitteri’s art. This young Massachusetts-born sculptor who now resides in Baton Rouge has found inspiration in his own past and in the waters that shaped the soul and history of a people. Through his work, one can explore the thoughts of an exceptional artist as he carries on silent conversations with those who open their imaginations to his imagery. Unlike many conceptual artists who seem to mystify their work, Pellitteri’s constructions lead viewers rather elegantly through contemporary issues of the environment and ecology, advances in mass communications and the resulting loss of privacy. His work talks of life-giving water and traps that ensnare our lives.

Pellitteri’s work is remarkable and stunningly successful for an artist so early in his career. Over the past three years, his sculptures have appeared in many juried solo and group shows in Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, New Jersey, Switzerland and Italy. In 2009 the Masur Museum of Art in Monroe featured his work in a one-artist show. In 2008, he was an artist-in-residence at North Dakota State University. Later that same year, he received the prestigious International Sculpture Center’s residency at Art St. Urban near Lucerne. In recent years, the 29-year-old artist, represented by Brunner Gallery in Baton Rouge and Covington and Kholer Contemporary Art in Lucerne, has received a number of awards and honors.

Awards and residencies

are important to careers, especially in university settings. Successful art, however, lies in its aesthetic abilities to convey ideas and emotions. Pellitteri’s work calls to mind existential psychologist Rollo May’s thoughts on art and the symbols of art: “Artistic symbols and myths speak out of the primordial, preconscious realm of the mind which is powerful and chaotic. Both symbol and myth are ways of bringing order and form into this chaos.” Pellitteri’s finely crafted symbols explore the “chaos” and ideas that concern him.

Pellitteri came to art in a curious way. His father was an architect; his grandfather and uncle were brick masons.

While in college, he worked in the building trades with his family during the day, but on weekends and nights, his studio became a private space and sanctuary where his imagination took shape in the form of art inspired by hard, physical work building houses. In art school at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, he started
off in industrial design but did not care for the computer work. He then thought about being a painter but soon realized after taking a few sculpture classes that his expression would not be in painting canvases but construction sites. Pellitteri’s brushes would be power and hand tools, and his palette would be iron, wood, steel and glass.

After receiving a bachelor of fine arts degree in sculpture in 2002, Pellitteri decided to move away from Boston, the Northeast and the familiar. Looking at a map of the United States, he followed the dark line of the Mississippi River across the landscape down to the Gulf of Mexico. “That’s how I ended up in Louisiana,” he says. He entered the master of fine arts program at LSU, where he now occasionally teaches, but realized the work he created there was not much different than what he had done in Massachusetts.

Once Pellitteri began to truly see his new surroundings, the South Louisiana landscape gave him new content and imagery. “It has added a new library of things to draw upon,” he says. “For example, one impression that struck me when I came here was how industrial the Baton Rouge area was. In the Northeast, the old factories and industrial areas that once produced everything from textiles to soap for the nation and world have been closed down and converted to condos and shopping malls. Here, when I drive around, I see water tanks, oil refineries and oil derricks. I made a sculpture of oil derricks playing tug of war with each other. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have made those sculptures had I not driven past and seen them.” Even certain aspects of South Louisiana architecture have worked their way into his art. In Network, for example, Pellitteri has employed high-gabled rooflines usually found in Louisiana shotgun houses. “The way I went about building it is from my background in construction,” he says. “I try to do it as close to the way it looks in real life.”

He soon recognized the importance water –– the Mississippi River, shipping, the coastline, recreational and commercial fishing –– has to life in South Louisiana. He describes this transition in a recent artist statement: “My work uses water to communicate my observations living along the Mississippi River for the past three years. As the communities that line the river exploit this resource for its economic potential, I exploit water for its potential in art. By developing my ideas around the natural qualities of water, I am able to create works that impart a sense of anticipation, as each of these sculptures changes over time. Water’s physical weight, evaporation, the path that water will flow and its life-sustaining ability allow me to create objects that comment on the social situations concerning the impact the Mississippi River has on the region as well as present this essential natural material in a way that it can be admired outside of its normal everyday context.”

Not to be mistaken for a native Louisianian with sensitivities for the local environment, he goes on to emphasize: “This work utilizes water as a means to communicate to the viewer my interpretation of the environment that surrounds me now, filtered through memories that derive from a different place. I cannot begin to represent a lifetime lived along the Mississippi River. I am a traveler passing through, presenting my impressions interpreted with my history.”

Many sculptors have used water to create special kinetic dynamics in their work. But Pellitteri’s purpose is not simply to create motion and energy but also to transfigure the artwork itself as water moves through the piece and evaporates.

In the large installation Water Level, for example, large sacks lined with silicone are filled with water and suspended from an overhead canopy of woven sticks. Acting as weights, these water bags control the framework’s movement. As the water drips and evaporates, the canopy slowly descends. Open pans that contain dry clay and charcoal trap the dripping water below. As the water dries in the pans, it gives the clay and charcoal new form.

Water also represents life, and Pellitteri explores the essential nature of water to all life forms. In Nature’s Course, he makes his point in a dining room scene. Centered in the room is a large cypress table with a patch of grass growing in the middle. Two sacks of water slowly water the grass, which is beginning to wilt from too much water or too little oxygen. As the water leaches through the sod, it drips down below to a stack of unfired clay dishes. As the dishes absorb the water, they begin to deteriorate. The clay holds the water and slowly releases it to grass seeds scattered around the dishes. The grass and table, he says, represent farming and food production. Nature’s Course is an ecological timeline in how man-made interventions destroy nature and how nature renews itself in the ruins.

Although Pellitteri’s Louisiana-inspired work is engaging, his most insightful compositions explore more disturbing changes in modern society, such as the effects of mass communications upon individual privacy. His Louisiana work is the landscape of place; this other work is the landscape of the mind. Using curious devices such as handmade traps (devices used successfully in earlier work), glass lenses, twisted telephone wires and other objects, he constructs narratives that speak of his disdain for modern society’s unthinking self-entrapment in the new cyber and digital world of cell phones and the Internet.

This idea of peering eyes and the umbilical of constant wireless communications came
 to him while serving a residency at North Dakota State University. While he was separated from his then-fiancée (now his wife), Nicole, the two devised a way to stay in touch with Web cams that gave each
an immediate “lens” into the daily life of the other. After awhile, he simply left the camera on while he worked and slept. The conflicting emotions of the joy of companionship and the paranoia of being under the constant gaze of another resulted in the remarkable Conversations and Lenses series. In Communication Between Lenses, Pellitteri sets up two empty miniature chairs divided by lenses but connected by strands of Nicole’s hair. Sleep Tight Under the Microscope, a small bed (his bed) on a glass microscope slide with lenses bearing down on it from every angle, captures the paranoia of being constantly observed while asleep.

Pellitteri is like a novelist or poet in telling stories of ideas, not in words but with images in metal, wood and glass. As a young art student, he thought of working in marble like the Greeks and Romans to make statues that would last forever.

But he is here now, creating art about our own world, not in stone but in the materials of our own making.

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