Artist Spotlight: Michael Petry

By Christopher Harrity

Originally published on Advocate.com March 17 2012 1:00 AM ET

Opening today at the Palm Springs Art Museum is "The Touch of the Oracle," featuring three monumental site-specific installations – Golden Rain, Joshua D’s Wall, and The Dilemma. These artworks provide an opportunity for audiences to experience the work of this installation-based conceptual artist that draws inspiration from art history, mythology, and contemporary culture. The distinct pieces relate and interact with each other and the visitors to the gallery creating an ambiance of sound and visual complexity.

While Michael Petry is not traditionally associated with the studio glass movement, his creative sensibilities are stimulated by the medium of glass in monumental works. Unlike studio glass artists, Petry does not actually create his individual art objects, but seeks out highly skilled craftspeople with whom he collaborates to animate his conceptual ideas. For these installations, he has worked with an inspired team of glass blowers to create works that require a high level of technical expertise.PALM SPRIGS ART MUSEUM MICHAEL PETRY INSTALLATION X560 | ADVOCATE.COMThe following photographs, all taken by Petry, are from the book The Touch of the Oracle. The book lushly documents his work in glass, wood, leather, pearls, string, and precious metals over a 10-year period. Much of the work here is in Petry's same-titled exhibit at the Palm Springs Art Museum (March 17-July 29), which looks at his diverse artistic output and features the new glass installation Joshua D’s Wall, made in Murano (Venice) at the Berengo Studios and a new sound installation with his 25- year performance partners John Powell (film music composer) and Gavin Greenaway (conductor and composer).

Petry, born El Paso, Texas, in 1960, has lived in London since 1981. He studied at Rice University, Houston (B.A.), London Guildhall University (M.A.), and has a doctor in arts from Middlesex University. Petry is an internationally exhibited artist, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in London, and curator of the Royal Academy Schools Gallery. He cofounded the Museum of Installation and was guest vurator at the Kunstakademiet, Oslo, and tesearch gellow at the University of Wolverhampton. Petry coauthored Installation Art (1994) and Installation in the New Millennium (2003), and authored Abstract Eroticism (1996) and A Thing of Beauty is... (1997). Petry’s book Hidden Histories: 20th Century Male Same Sex Lovers in the Visual Arts (2004) is the first comprehensive survey of its kind and accompanied the exhibition "Hidden Histories" he curated for The New Art Gallery Walsall.MICHAEL PETRY  Joshua D’s Wall, 2012, 250 blown glass boulders X560 | ADVOCATE.COMNature Morte (still life) paintings can be found all the way back to Egyptian tombs and Greek dwellings. Artists strove to reproduce flora and fauna as realistically as possible, and the attempt to fool the eye (trompe l’oeil) was known as mimesis. These images did not imply a morality to mortality, until Christianity took hold. Jan van Eyck made more realistic paintings due to technical advances, which spoke a religious language, while Leonardo da Vinci studied everyday objects of nature for scientific purposes. Since the earliest Christian depictions, flowers held religious meaning, and the Victorians made floral language into an art, where each flower spoke loudly.

My Nature Mortes, made from colored blown glass and cut flowers, include the fourth dimension of time. Paintings of still lives attempted to bring time into them by depicting decay (rotting fruits, meat) and the mortality of the viewer (skulls). Here, the cut flowers slowly lose their bloom, and the glass containers cannot be shown without flowers in them.They are not vases. Each vessel speaks a coded language based on its color (reflecting the 1970s gay hankie code, e.g. red for fisting, purple for spanking) and the Victorian language of flowers (e.g. red roses for true love, hyacinth for forgiveness). Each glass receptacle is unique, as it is also a portrait of someone’s anus. I invited men and women on the internet to send an image of their sphincter for the basis of a portrait, as it is one sexual part of our bodies that we cannot easily visualize, and whose visage is similar for men and women. These works appear as simple floral arrangements in pretty vases but are also sexually explicit portraits that continually change. — Michael Petry  MICHAEL PETRY The Revenge of the Florist X560 | ADVOCATE.COM As with the Nature Mortes, for my 2005 series of Web Portraits, I asked men and women on the Web to send me images of their anuses to form the basis of a portrait. Initially I took a piece of leather in the color of the fetish they were most interested in (as in the glass works) and then hand-sewed it into a portrait as similar to the image sent to me. As the originals images were photographs, these objects were also then photographed to form their final state. In all the Web Portraits, the images sent to me were confidential and destroyed after use. Equally, there was no way to verify if the image sent was from the person claiming that identity, so the resultant portrait was a Web Portrait of who they identified with in the virtual world. — M.P. MICHAEL PETRY Web PortraitS X560 | ADVOCATE.COM In Hindu creation myths the god Shiva is traditionally depicted as a lingam.The lingams take the shape of a phallus and are linked to fertility as well as good luck. Practitioners often touch the top (head) of the lingam daily in home shrines for good luck and make offerings of flowers, milk and oils in temples. The complimentary object and sexuality, the yoni represents the goddess Shakti. Lingams have traditionally been made from stone, wood, metal and are also seen in natural formations and have been worshiped for thousands of years.

My lingams are shown in groups as well as on their own, and take many forms, as with traditional depictions. — M.P. MICHAEL LINGAMS X560 | ADVOCATE.COM
MICHAEL PETRY LINGAM FOR ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG X560 | ADVOCATE.COM In 2010. I became the first artist in residence at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, and installed two shows over the period of a year. The second, "Bad Seed," showed work made in response to the residency and was based on the difficult personal history of Sir John Soane and his innovative use of colored glass and mirror in his home. The new works also referenced the Romantic elements of Soane’s collections (paintings by Henry Fuseli and Maria Cosway) as much as the architecture of rooms like the Monk’s Parlour, but the gothic nature of Soane’s relationships to his children led to the creation of the world’s first museum of architecture. Soane had two sons, John Junior, who married and followed his father’s architectural career, and George, a redheaded tearaway. When John Junior died, George reluctantly joined the family business, but took revenge on his father by anonymously criticizing his work in several newspaper articles. When Soane secretly found out, the news shocked his mother, who thought he might even be a changeling, and she expired, leaving Soane to curse and cut George loose.Without funds, George landed in debtors' prison, but returned to impregnate his sister-in-law as a final revenge. Soane’s legitimate grandson Frederick was also a disappointment as he became involved with a Captain Westwood, whose army career was blighted by a close relationship with another officer (who took his own life). Soane secretly decided to leave all of his estate to the government (by act of Parliament) rather than his male heirs. Upon his father’s death George was called to the family solicitors to receive his inheritance, handed to him in an envelope, which contained only copies of the bad reviews he had written.

The biomorphic glass forms insinuated themselves into odd spaces in the museum, seeping from corners of rooms, or the fireplace, or appeared as if they had dropped from the ceiling or crept in from outside. Some works were placed upon items of furniture where their incongruous presence confronted the viewer. Soane believed that demonic spirits (incubus/succubus) had corrupted his progeny, and the Bad Seeds’ organic shapes ape the vapors said to inhabit haunted sites, the ectoplasm that solidifies into strange artifacts. While they responded to the physical architecture of the rooms they were placed in, they were not site-specific installations but autonomous sculptures. — M.P. MICHAEL PETRY BAD SEED X560 | ADVOCATE.COMFor the exhibit "Touching the Neoclassical and the Romantic" I exhibited works from my "Bare Back Lovers" series of glass pieces that fuse neoclassical silver forms with the organic, fluid qualities of molten glass. Soane was interested in neoclassical silver (as evidenced in his collection of Robert Adam drawings for silver designs) as well as glass, which he innovatively used in his architecture. Each of the BB works is numbered as to its place in its production (i.e. BB45, BB103). This alludes to the nature of its origin as a mass-produced object (the silver plate) that aped craftwork.Yet after the introduction of molten glass (a craft technique), each object became a unique sculptural artwork.The works were installed throughout the museum and were placed in such a way to appear as if they were part of Soane’s original collection of diverse objects from across historical periods and of many materials. — M.P. MICHAEL BARE BACK LOVERS SERIES BB115, 2010, Collection of Guy Burch & Richard Ayre X560 | ADVOCATE.COM The exhibit DOGMA was curated by Predrag Pajdic in Zagreb, Croatia, formerly part of Yugoslavia. The exhibition looked at the relationship between religion and conflict. I made several works that directly looked at creation myths appropriate to many of the religions involved in that conflict and others that had come from recent religious wars.

A biblical creation myth recounts a god making Adam from earth, and for Fingering God I inserted my fingers into wet casting sand and the resultant hole was filled with molten glass. — M.P. MICHAEL PETRY FINGERING GOD X560 | ADVOCATE.COM In the "Memory Strings" series, the works continually change in size and name over time. The glass balls can be placed between six and 12 inches apart to fit the dimensions of the room they hang in. The title changes as each new owner or curator adds a memory to the work when they are shown. A name, place, date, or phase is added that they will always associate with viewing it (i.e. Memory String II [Venice, Welling Estuary...]). These works connect two strands of practice, the large-scale glass installations and the knotted rope and string series. As time passes the titles should grow into a form of concrete poetry, where only the last person who has added a memory is likely to know what it stands for.

A variation on these strings is the series "Memory Stops," where a single glass bead is suspended on rope and only one memory can be added to the title and then it will always be associated with that object.The first owner of the work names it (Memory Stop: New Art Gallery Walsall 10th Anniversary).

Additionally, various string works are named to evoke a place and can be re-sited in various scales to engage the architecture of the new space but retain not only their name, but the order of the beads as in Reclaimed Landscape, 2011, made for the "Sagacity" show in London, directly looking onto the new Olympic stadium.

The Treasure of Memory was one of three large installations I made for my exhibition "Laughing at Time" at the Hå gamle prestegard art complex in Norway in 2000. Hå is situated on the site of a Viking burial ground that looks out to the North Sea. A lighthouse and vicarage were built on the site in the late 19th century, which later became an art center. When one of the buildings was renovated, a burial mound was found under the floor and in it was a Viking wearing a stolen Roman glass bead necklace. The Treasure of Memory, a necklace for a building, or a Nordic god, features 32 unique glass beads, each referencing similar ones from ancient cultures (Egypt, Sumeria) to contemporary design (Prada, Gucci).

The work is owned by the Museum of Arts & Design in New York, and in 2007 its curator, Ursula Ilse-Neuman, organized a touring exhibition, "Glasswear," which went to museums from Belgium to Alabama.The work is designed to be re-strung for each location, and the local curator is allowed to string the beads according to their color taste as long as the pattern of the shapes of the beads (oval, round, and oblong) is repeated. Not all the beads need be shown in any one location, and the work can be hung at any height. — M.P. MICHAEL PETRY THE TREASURE OF MEMORY X560 | ADVOCATE.COM "Got wood" is a term used in gay and straight pornography, where the director will ask do we have wood, and if the reply is "got wood," then the male performer is erect and ready for filming. This term is the title of a series of work in a variety of hardwoods, all highly sanded and oiled. Viewers are allowed to touch their velvety skin (the oil in their hands is good for the wood).

In the Garden of Eden comprises 12 vertical slices of polished wood and each has an oculus cut into it. The holes were all cut at about the height of an average person’s genitals. Standing next to the pieces, the oculus acted as an anti-fig leaf, framing the crotch for others in the room to see. This installation was meant to be touched, and when visitors did interact with the pieces they were activated and started to sway, reminding viewers of their original state as trees. Equally, images cannot convey the intense smell of the wood. The planks were hung by wire a few millimeters above the gallery floor, in the pattern of video booths found in adult bookstores.The work was designed to take advantage of the gallery’s location, allowing the sun to illuminate the holes at certain times of day, similar to Stonehenge. — M.P. MICHAEL PETRY IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN X560 | ADVOCATE.COM In Party Number 1 and Party Number 2 the slices of wood have been incised with a multitude of openings, transforming the plank into cellular lace.The works are again suspended and allow for more than one viewer at a time to explore their surfaces and holes. — M.P. MICHAEL PETRY PARTY 2 X560 | ADVOCATE.COM
MICHAEL PETRY PARTY 1 X560 | ADVOCATE.COM Four Bits of Scarlet for George the Second was part of a show, "Borders and Identities," curated by David Waterworth at the Stephen Lawrence Gallery situated in the Old Royal Naval College, which is now the University of Greenwich. The installation consisted of four sets of two red glass orbs hanging from original lighting lanterns in a line that directs the eye to the center of the quadrangle where a statue of George II stands. He holds a round orb/globe in his hand representing his rule across the world, which was brought about by his men in scarlet — i.e. soldiers called "redcoats." George himself wears the garb of a Roman emperor, including a leather skirt. His men were also called a "bit of scarlet" in gay parlance, as many offered their services to gentlemen to supplement their meager or nonexistent pay. The red glass balls are the same size as the orb in George’s hand, but hang at the height of his testicles. The baroque building was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built by Nicholas Hawksmoor along strict Masonic lines allowing for the setting sun to illuminate the orbs on an empire which at one point the sun never set. — M.P. MICHAEL PETRY FOUR BITS OF SCARLET FOR GEORGE THE SECOND X560 | ADVOCATE.COM Self Portrait 2008 was placed inside the gallery. Two gold mirrored glass orbs the same size as my own testicles were suspended (at their height on my body) from the brass chandelier. When the gallery door was open, this allowed a view of the gold and red glass orbs to be seen together along a perpendicular sight line. — M.P.