“A man spends his whole lifetime painting one picture or working on one piece of sculpture.” Barnett Newman wrote this truth in 1950, this truth about men, but it’s almost as if he had predicted the Peter Gallo phenomenon; not that Gallo is repetitious per se but one does come to recognize, then respond to, then live for, the patterns one sees in his work. Count the ships in this show, in his career, Dreamy and sad, scudding across a Turner sea, Gallo’s “Blue Ship” is sketched almost in Chinese form, an effect almost as much of calligraphy as of draughtsmanship, its attenuated tendrils or drips tying together the masses of blue accreting at the picture’s center, so the pink must be the sky or fog, with gold at the edges, a mercantile sort of windjammer bound for a wealthy East.
Everywhere we who are watching this work encounter language, words, thump, thump thump, like the bumper cars of the county fairs of my youth. “Friendship & Modernism” boosts “Friendship” above, “Modernism” below—the underdog?—nouns pushed apart by a rectangular patch of Silly Putty pink, itself squirming loose from its wooden plank frame. Guess “friendship” has the advantage, for the painter can spin off the “-ship” suffix into a separately painted word. His “ship” sails on, while ugly old modernism, sporting deep slashes in its “m’s,” looks warped and Russian, or Slavic, a word that begins and ends with a “V,” perhaps something like “Vaslav.”
I e-mailed Peter Gallo to ask what was up with all the words, disturbing the surface of the picture, sometimes buried under a flurry or compost of what I now think of as paint symptoms. Just a day later my inbox rang at me, and “There's this huge pleasure,” Gallo wrote, ”in painting out words and phrases, especially those in another language... I really do not read German well at all...however, when I take a sample from Holderlin, or Celan, or one of Kant's or Freud's or Schreber's or Beuys' amazing and crazy words or utterances, and paint it out on a surface, and see what happens, it seems to hand over some of its sense to me.” Kant I never think of in terms of magic, but the others, maybe?
Later it hit me that he uses the verb form “to paint out” in a way totally different than the way I do. My mouth only manages that phrase in my urban alley, when I walk to my car and overnight street gangs have covered it with the ecstatic menace of graffiti. “Nuts,” I tell my iPhone. “Oh for crying out loud, now I’ve gotta paint out this mess.” Painting out is covering up, obliteration, disguise: what else could it mean, but for Gallo it seems to convey only application, making, even interpellation, calling something into being by locating it. Queer language practice long ago made “out” the center of every progressive formation, and dimly I begin to imagine “painting out” as a liberation, an escape from the picture plane.
Recently a Gallo fan told me, “Peter Gallo’s painting is to ordinary art as jailhouse tattoos are to ordinary tattoos.” Sort of a strange compliment perhaps? The boy’s big red lips and large green eyes, like olives, gleamed but gave no clue. Ultimately I thought of how the hipsters in my neighborhood in San Francisco will flock to Don Ed Hardy’s studio to get Occupy Oakland tattooed down their arms, but in a jailhouse, you’d have to be really desperate or under duress (even the duress of boredom) to submit to that stubby needle and that fizzy hydrocortisone. Vaslav’s long sinewy body is covered with Russian gang tats, of death as a woman tied to a firecracker, of a giant four-headed dog with V’s for eyes, What if Gallo’s pictures were really postcards, messages from a place far away and long ago like yesterday? X’s and O’s, like kisses, decorate the trellis of each pop-up Ouija board. You could be the guy who saves his ass by writing letters for the other lifers. Zoning in and out of consciousness as the world explodes, the stultifera navis glides on a stern horizontal, as though on greased machinery, right out of the picture. For Foucault, writing in Madness and Civilization, it was at this point, the late 15th century launch of the “ship of fools” (Der Narrenschiff of Sebastian Brant), that image and text began to dissociate from each other, to break apart, to break off relations with each other, and that this is the burden we all labor under today. For Gallo the situation is rather different—maybe more hopeful? Images and text still bear relation, bear witness in a certain way, there is a ritual, symbolic intercourse here that delights me as a writer.
I came to this work when people kept telling me, look beyond the “beautiful losers” of the soi-disant Mission School here in San Francisco, look back, go to the source. He lives in Vermont and he’s called Peter Gallo. I’m happy and I’m frightened, the way Speke must have felt approaching Lake Victoria. Fear creeps in further as I ponder Gallo’s restricted palette. Those shades of taupe and tan so etiolated, at the end of their tether; the pale flesh color of band-aids; pinks and grays that must have been boiled from flowers and mashed, as indigenous tribes once dyed the dwellings invading forces tried to pronounce as “wigwams.” On Facebook sometimes months will go by without a status update from Gallo, and then, like today, it’s a picture of a thistle patch in November, the camera angle taken down low, near the earth, the broken exploding thistles marvels of no color—the color of a spider web, a fringe of hair, the hair color Marilyn Monroe went to during her intellectual period, when she had herself photographed next to Carl Sandburg and said she had his hair now. Why are the loveliest and softest things in the world the scariest? I guess because they’ve been somewhere, somewhere close to death perhaps. Before the ship of fools set sail (again Foucault) life opposed death, and madness hardly was noticed. And afterwards madness took the place of death, just like the escaped prisoner takes care to mold a version of his own body out of towels and whatnot, to leave behind under the threadbare blanket when the guard shines a light on his bunk. Barnett Newman had it slightly wrong, about men at least: — in my view a man spends his whole lifetime breaking out of one prison.