American artist Peter Gronquist draws on a wide range of media for his works – fabric, metal, ceramics, frosted glass, mirrors, even taxidermy. Working from his barn by a lake near Portland, Oregon, his oeuvre is multi-disciplinary – sculpture, painting and installation.
In whatever medium, his themes have revolved chiefly around American obsessions with material wealth, consumerism, guns, and religion. He once said, “Our culture puts money and violence on way too high a pedestal. I think these days people no longer see the line between entertainment and reality.”
Though these themes still recur, in his new exhibition, Shape Shifter, at Unit London, Gronquist delivers a change in focus largely brought about by a personal tragedy – the recent death of his young daughter. For example, instead of the airliners you see in the infinity mirror piece above, the planes he might once have depicted would have been from the military, F-16 bombers for instance, symbols of America’s fascination with war.
“When we started working with Peter four or five years ago, it was completely different to the aesthetic and dynamic of this show,” says Unit London’s co-owner Joe Kennedy. “He saw infinity mirrors with guns or with church steeples or gold-plated jets with this saccharine capitalist commentary. But now it’s much more mature I think, more contemplative.”
The infinity mirror is an example of Gronquist’s theme of impermanence that pervades his work – everything from the built-in obsolescence of our tech gadgets to life itself. The work comprises essentially a two-way mirror through which light passes illuminating the models – airliners in this case or a ceramic grid in the top shot – then reflects off the mirror and back into itself. The view changes with the angle of sight so the viewer has a part to play. As the light passes through the impurities in the glass, it decreases in strength by roughly 7% with each reflection until it disappears. There’s a certain soothing element to the infinity works and he’s built each model by hand rather than have them mass-produced. He’s left in imperfections to give them the human touch.
Some of the more dramatic exhibits on show, again on the impermanence theme, are the ironically entitled Immortals, a series of five pieces in which twisted metal emerges from a broken ceramic vase. Seemingly floating against the wall, they cast a dark shadow, literally. To achieve the effect, he has poured molten aluminium into a ceramic vessel and exploded it by submerging into cold water. Having filmed it, he then has reconstructed the point at which the explosion first began.
The result is a contrast of a peaceful-looking but broken ceramic against an aggressive, destructive element in the metal which speaks to me of both anger and sadness sitting side by side. It’s partly all about society’s disposable culture but, as Gronquist comments, “more importantly it exposes the man-made item as weak, and therefore highlights its own temporary nature.”
There are more conventional “colour field” works on show in which colours diffuse behind frosted glass, the gradients differed throughout in a most soothing and emotional way. They’re the kind of works you can get lost in. The paintings are backed by a mirrored material that gives the illusion of being backlit and glowing from within. Some works are indeed backlit with an electric light which creates a certain aura within the work, celebrating beauty but also fragility. There’s an installation too in which two planks of wood have been hollowed out at the back and a coloured neon light inserted, the illumination from which reflects on to the gallery wall.
Shape Shifter is an interesting mix of the sweet and sour both in individual works together and in the mix as a whole. It feels to me as if Gronquist has moved on from polemic alone to include the personal which lends his work an added poignancy.
Shape Shifter is showing at Unit London, 3 Hanover Square, London W1S 1HD until 17 February 2019
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.