David De Pooter, “Peter Gallo ‘Ship Of Fools’,” The Art Couch, November 8, 2018
The work of the reclusive artist Peter Gallo oscillates freely between painting, drawing, collage, and sculpture. Filed with literary, art-historical, cultural, political, and musical references and detours, Gallo’s works, when installed together, create poetic, albeit labyrinthine, mise-en-scènes. The critic James Yood identified in Gallo
an apparent disdain for materials; an alert scavenger’s attitude toward culture; an eye for the poignant frailties of the vernacular; and an occasionally breathtaking ability to evoke issues of great import.
His work is, inevitably, a mixed bag, because he treats the world and his mind as jumbled compendiums, filled with little connections and bursts of revelation that his seemingly slight but actually pointed interventions reveal. It amounts to a kind of grunge arte povera, a witty and instinctive immersion in the stuff of the world that is alternately lax and labored, spottily profound.
A partial inventory of Gallo’s materials would include dental floss, toothpicks, a towel, string, wire, French vermilion oil paint, buttons, toilet paper, spackle, bric-a-brac, a bedsheet, picture frames, amateur sculptures, and patterned fabrics. These are usually mixed with snippets of found text or references to figures of cultural authority, either scrawled onto surfaces, collaged, or laboriously constructed as sculptures that allude to the likes of Spengler, Nietzsche, Kant, Pasolini, and Mondrian. His output becomes a kind of pantheon of gravitas—or, in its use of vernacular text, antigravitas made vital by the intensity of Gallo’s scribbles and his disinterest in pictorial nicety. (Artforum, February 2005.)
Gallo’s deceptively quiet body of work combines images from sources as diverse as gay pornography and ornithology with words by Roland Barthes, Freud, and bands like Joy Division and The Cocteau Twins. He utilizes simple formal structures that emphasize the materiality of painting, and his works alternate between, or combine, abstract, figurative, and textual elements. Nautical imagery derived from historical sources such as the Ship of Fools and the Ship of State, stands as one of his signature subjects.
For Independent, Brussels, Sean Horton (presents) proposes a curated salon-style installation with painted walls, and paintings and works on paper by Gallo based on the recurring motif of the Ship of Fools. The works span the last twenty years of Gallo’s production and he gleans their images from multiple sources, including old photographs (the Civil War sloop-of-war Kearsarge is a recurrent motif), Labatt’s beer labels, vintage maritime paintings, and nineteenth-century American Luminist depictions of vessels, notably Martin Johnson Heade’s images of ships. Gallo’s seafaring images also refer to the historical allegory of the Ship of Fools, long a fixture in Western literature and art. Traced back to a book of satire published in 1494 in Basel, Switzerland, by Sebastian Brant, a conservative German theologian, the allegory pictures a pilotless vessel filled with deranged, frivolous, or oblivious passengers, seemingly ignorant of their own direction. This concept ultimately served as the inspiration for Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting Ship of Fools (circa 1490–1500, Musée du Louvre, Paris), which depicts a ship that sets off to the paradise of fools.
Michel Foucault, in Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1964), wrote that in the late gothic world, the Ship of Fools came back into fashion as the basis for popular moral, satiric, and romantic tales, which were often comics-like send-ups of the foibles of public figures. But Foucault also proposed that, along with the reappearance of the figure as a literary and artistic device during the Renaissance, there indeed existed real ships that were used to expel unwanted “madmen” from city streets; they “had a real existence,” he writes, and “conveyed their insane cargo from town to town.”
Gallo created many of his paintings of ships in response to Foucault’s text, particularly the manner in which Foucault links the ubiquitous gothic image to the emergence of an overall effort to exclude the impoverished, mentally ill, sexually deviant, handicapped, etc. from the streets of early modern European cities.
Foucault cites specific instances in which municipalities relied on the services of boatman to deal with the growing problems of modern indigence. “Navigation delivers man to the uncertainty of fate” he wrote in one of many moving passages. “On water, each of us is in the hands of his own destiny; every embarkation is, potentially, the last. It is for the other world that the madman sets sail in his fools’ boat; it is from the other world the he comes when he disembarks. The madman’s voyage is at one a rigorous division and absolute Passage.”
An artist and writer, Peter Gallo was born in Rutland, Vermont, in 1959. He received a B.A. from Middlebury College, and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Art History from Concordia University in Montreal. His dissertation addresses the impact of medicalization and biopolitics on modern and contemporary artistic experience.
Gallo worked as a case manager at a mental health center in rural Vermont for many years and organized art workshops in day treatment centers, elder centers, and group homes as a member of the Grass Roots Art and Community Efforts (GRACE). He has exhibited extensively throughout the United States and Europe. Solo exhibitions of his work have been seen at White Columns, New York (2005); Horton Gallery, New York (2010, 2011); Anthony Reynolds Gallery, London (2012); Douglas Hyde Gallery, Trinity College, Dublin (2014); and Anthony Reynolds Gallery/àngels barcelona, Barcelona (2016). An exhibition is scheduled for 2020 at the Musée des Arts Contemporains de la Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles at the Grand-Hornu, in Hornu, Belgium, curated by Denis Gielen. Gallo lives and works in Hyde Park, Vermont.
The project is curated by Joseph R. Wolin – a curator and critic of contemporary art based in New York. Wolin has curated more than 25 exhibitions since 1994, including The Royal Art Lodge: Ask the Dust, which traveled to six venues in four countries during 2003–05; Open This End: Contemporary Art from the Collection of Blake Byrne, which traveled to four American university art galleries in 2015–16; and Living Together, a six month series of mostly performance art events at Miami Dade College in 2018. He has authored more than 200 art exhibition reviews for Time Out New York since 2006 and has also written for The New Yorker, Canadian Art, Modern Painters, Garage, and Glasstire, among other publications. He was the Art Critic in Residence at the Bronx Museum in 2012–13 and since 2002 has served as a founding board member of Participant, Inc., in New York.