Albuquerque Journal, January 20, 2008
Review of Exhibit/208 show January 5-February 14, 2008
Artist's Inner Vision Flawless
By Wesley Pulkka
His mastery of illusionist form and tonality made his monochromatic landscape and polychrome still-life monotypes look like photographs mysteriously touched by the dream world of surrealism.
Pelegrin's best works are monochromatic. He had the ability to build form with tonal variations, giving his work a magical other-worldly quality that from a distance looked photographic. When he wasn't depicting recognizable subjects, Pelegrin relished creating illusions of three-dimensional objects that could not be constructed in the real world.
Several of these impossible abstractions run across the east wall of the front gallery. In the southeast corner an angular steel sculpture seemingly wrested from the bowels of the Earth gives life to the impossibility of Pelegrin's fantasies.
Pelegrin's sculpture appears to have been forged by Thor's hammer on a medieval anvil surrounded by billowing coal smoke and flying sparks.
The show also presents a cross section of framed works and two portfolios of signed prints. Pelegrin's subject matter embraced flowers, feathers, forests, clusters of vegetables, plants and rock-strewn desert scenes.
Pelegrin had a fascination with feathers that he pursued with delicacy and grace in a series of monotypes treating individual feathers as sacred icons. In many American Indian cultures, feathers are symbols of power having to do with the power of flight and the airy intangibility of the spirit world.
Pelegrin's sensitivity to the fragile nature of feathers carried over into his careful renderings of flowers reminiscent of Chinese watercolor paintings. From cherry blossoms to more ordinary botanicals, Pelegrin's skillful draftsmanship turned simple close-up views into masterworks.
The unframed portfolios contain many elegant works including "Untitled plant forms," a beautifully rendered image revealing the artist's attention to detail and skillful draftsmanship.
The framed show features a mixture of monochromatic and black-and-white landscapes and botanical imagery. The full-color works are the weakest images while the limited palette and monochromatic works are the strongest.
Pelegrin shares a kinship with world-renowned abstract expressionist Franz Kline, who produced widely acclaimed black-and-white paintings but failed to find an audience for his color works.
It should be noted that Pelegrin created his most fascinating works from his fruitful imagination. From large charcoal drawings to his smallest monotypes he practiced the process of immersion. To create an image he continued to apply and erase pigment until a landscape, rock formation or forest emerged.
In Japanese Sumi ink drawing, students are encouraged to spend the morning looking and the afternoon painting. Through disciplined meditation the students would develop an inner vision that becomes an almost automatic source of imagery.
In a similar fashion Pelegrin worked from memory, but his total concentration and suspension of outer-directed preconceived control bordered on magic. In a conversation with another artist, Pelegrin once said when he closed his eyes landscapes would appear and move across his eyelids as if he was riding in a car.
By painting directly on blank printing plates Pelegrin negated the production of multiple images. Each drawing, print and sculpture was one of a kind.
Pelegrin was an iconoclastic artist with a unique inner vision who produced a body of work informed by his spirituality, inner vision and willingness to work hard. This show is a do-not-miss inspiration.
American Artist Magazine, VNU Publications, January 2005
A Moment of Magic: The Monotypes of Robert Pelegrin
To this New Mexico artist, monotype continually offers new challenges and ways of working.
by Christopher Willard
A longtime student of art, Robert Pelegrin, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, had been searching for years to find a medium that he could call his own. The first time he pulled a print, he knew his search was over. "Suddenly I discovered an outlet that could encompass my curiosity and give me room to develop new techniques," he says. "The moment the image was transferred to the paper was one of fascination and magic for me." Since that pivotal moment over 20 years ago, Pelegrin has devoted himself to prints, particularly the monotype, a technique whereby ink is spread directly on a plate from which the artist pulls a single print.
Pelegrin got his first taste for printmaking in 1975, after taking an introductory course at the Experimental Etching Studio in Boston. "We went through many different techniques, and I studied the prints of Edgar Degas. I asked the instructor what a monotype was, and later that day I pulled my first monotype print. I was amazed at the ease I felt in painting and moving the ink around on the blank plate."
After several years in New England, Pelegrin moved west to New Mexico, where he continued to work in monotype. "I started working with landscapes, although not from life," he says. "My landscapes were imaginary. I didn't take any photographs for the work. I did them at my desk." Pelegrin had been creating landscape images for about six years—work that allowed him to explore the many facets of black-and-white monotype printing—when difficulty with his materials forced him to contemplate a switch to color. "One day, the black ink stopped working for me. I bought around 20 tubes of ink and found that none of them worked, so I decided to make a change and started using color. I was pleased to discover that my time spent using only black and white helped me to approach color differently, and that it was easy for me to mix colors into a wide variety of values, from light to dark. It was something almost unconscious that I had learned while using only black and white that made the process easier."
Now a seasoned veteran of color monotypes, Pelegrin will complete two or three during each painting session. Since the oil-based inks dry rapidly in the arid desert climate, the artist works quickly. He uses ink from three manufacturers, but limits his palette to the primary colors, plus yellow ochre, green, and purple. "I prefer Charbonnel for my main primaries—geranium red, permanent yellow, and ocean blue. I supplement them with Graphic Chemical thalo red, diarylide yellow, and Daniel Smith black ink." Often Pelegrin will mix two inks to get the exact degree of tackiness that he is looking for, but he never mixes black into his colors. He will also add a transparent base to colors that he finds very opaque, such as yellow ochre, and completes a color test before pulling a final print.
But pure pigment isn't the only thing Pelegrin has to keep in mind when planning a piece. "Printmakers who are unaware of the chemical reaction pigments can have with a metal plate are often surprised when their bright colors come out muddy," Pelegrin explains. "Artists need to remember that zinc and copper plates oxidize certain colors of ink. For example, certain yellows can react with a zinc plate. It can create beautiful colors, but not if you were looking for an intense yellow. Copper also oxidizes some reds, so they become muted." The artist works around this problem by using panels of opaque white Plexiglas. "It's perfect," Pelegrin says. "Because it's white I can see everything that I'm doing, and there is no interference with the colors. The plates are also durable. I've used my plates hundreds of times."
Several summers ago, Pelegrin lived three blocks from a farmers' market and would do still lifes of the vegetables he saw while shopping. "I would do prints of single vegetables," he says. "I had always liked botanical guides on the flora and fauna of a region, and I modeled my work after the diagrams in those books. After that, I moved on to flowers."
Pelegrin's shift of subject was coupled by a shift in his process, as he started creating more artwork from observed items, rather than from his imagination. "For me," Pelegrin notes, "there is no difference between working from my head and working from life, because I like to put myself into each piece, so the object is used more as a reference. I create different settings and play with architectural elements as I work." Following one print, Pelegrin noticed a feather lying on the table and decided to try to capture its difficult form in a print. "I decided it would be a good challenge for me, and I was thrilled when it came out really well," he says. "From that moment, I started focusing on feathers.
"To create a feather print, I first lay down the background color of thinned ink by using a Speedball soft brayer," Pelegrin continues. "I prefer my backgrounds to be uniformly colored, so I continue rolling until the ink starts to dry." In the warm climate of New Mexico, this happens very quickly, and Pelegrin often adds a drop of clove oil to lengthen the drying time. "After I've laid down the background color, I draw with the brayers," he explains. "A brayer doesn't have to be just a tool for rolling ink. I think I developed this technique as a direct result of having made monotype printmaking my primary medium [instead of an adjunct to another process]. After a while, I just started creating things I hadn't previously thought were possible."
Pelegrin's general color choice is determined by his background color. "I stay within the same color spectrum," he says, "so if I have a yellow background, I will put red and orange objects on top. If I wanted to place an object with a contrasting color, I would first have to scrape away all the underlying color. By staying in the same part of the spectrum, it makes for a more fluid print.
"After I outline the shape of the feather with the edge of the brayer, I paint in the lines," the artist continues. "The feathers are basically one color with some white showing, which I get by scraping away ink. I also use the brayer to dab on color, or I pull a stiff hog-hair brush across the plate. By the time I reach this point, the background is pretty dry, so it's time for me to pull the print."
While he works with the ink, Pelegrin soaks his paper in water. "I like to soak the sheets for a long time," he says. "When I make the print I like to use as much pressure as I can, because I like to take as much ink off the plate as possible." Upon separating the print from the plate, he inserts it—still wet—between sheets of blotter paper and flattens it with heavy boards. In warm weather, Pelegrin says a print will dry in about one day.
Pelegrin was recently in a two-person works-on-paper exhibition at the Harwood Museum of Art, in Taos, New Mexico.
Christopher Willard is a painter, color theorist, and freelance writer who has contributed to American Artist for more than seven years.
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