Michael Pearce’s exhibit, “The Clouty Tree, The Devil and Me” features a new installation as well as paintings from three collections of the artist’s work, including “The Secret Paintings” “The Veils” and the “Grail Watchers” installation.

Pearce’s new installation features three, approximately 20-foot-tall clouty trees constructed from wood, nails, and screws, and adorned with strips of torn cloth. Visitors to the exhibit are invited to leave prayers, wishes, and poems on the strips of cloth, as this tradition has been done for hundreds of years in the clouty trees over rivers and streams in England and Ireland. In this unique interpretation, each of the manmade clouty trees holds one of Pearce’s paintings aloft as an offering to the sky.

Michael Pearce: The Clouty Tree, The Devil and Me

Exhibition Dates:
March 5- April 7, 2016

Kwan Fong Gallery of Art and Culture

California Lutheran University campus, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Reception photography by Brittany McGinley for the Kwan Fong Gallery

“The Secret Paintings” in the exhibit are both massive in size and expert in detail, and are based on fifteenth century tarot cards. Pearce states, “I’ve been writing and painting about the esoteric images for seven years, working toward completing a series of twenty-two canvases based on them. My paintings are 21st Century interpretations of these old allegories – I want them to be relevant to us in our experience of life in this mad spectacle.”

In the “Veils” collection, Michael has created introspective images which invite the viewer to enter their web of secrecy and either empathize with or envy the hovering women’s sheathed and suspended situations. Of “The Veils” works, Pearce states, “These are paintings of beautiful women floating in sheer fabric and plastic. I wanted to paint a world of light and dreams. It was pleasant to take a break from the large scale of the secret paintings and enjoy a more abstract time, allowing myself to wander in a more ethereal place for a while.”

I had the fortunate opportunity to meet with Pearce, a figurative painter and California Lutheran University professor, at the Kwan Fong Gallery one day before his opening reception. When we met, the majority of Michael’s paintings were not yet hung and remained turned towards the walls as to keep their contents secret before their unveiling the following evening. The psychedelic music of Pink Floyd filled the gallery as I moved about slowly, minding my way across the floor which was littered with the ingredients – mostly wood planks and nails – that would soon form Pearce’s “Clouty Tree” installation. We became acquainted as I asked questions, and then Michael Pearce proceeded to amaze me: as he turned his large paintings around, one by one, my eyes widened to take in the magical worlds revealed within his impeccable, mysterious paintings.

Online author Jennifer Susan Jones with Michael Pearce

As I previewed the exhibition with Pearce, the muse was palpable in the room, infusing my mind with ancient stories as I wrote up what I saw in the paintings and asked eager questions of the artist. I wrote as Pearce resumed his setting up, working with his assistant on the construction of his lanky, wooden trees. I focused first (amid the bangs and clangs of hammers, the scraping of metal measuring tape) on the epic “Secret Paintings.” In “Imperium,” a female embodiment of nature, modeled by a former colleague, sits, connected to the earth, absorbing its energy, its elements, as if her seated bottom had roots that could drink up earth’s mineral-rich milk. The earth, the grass, the meadow, the fertile soil, is all so alive below her. Her horned headdress lends another layer of luscious mystery and symbolism to her being: the embodiment of flora and fauna in the form of familiar human flesh. With morning glory vines (nature’s LSD) growing forth from her mouth, she is speaking nature, speaking green growth, tempting tendrils up, controlling the vines with the mystique and command of a well-practiced snake charmer.

The male subject in “Imperium” is controlling with a domineering power, a self-centered air of fragile loftiness. He holds the Globus Mundi in his hand and sports imperial eagle tattoos on both upper arms. His situation is fragile in that he is wholly unbalanced, precariously perched atop a sparse structure, whose form meshes smartly with the surrounding clouty trees in Pearce’s installation. We see that the subject is high, arrogant, but in him we see the fact illustrated that the more self-important you falsely believe yourself to be, the more you distance yourself from a connected center, a sense of belonging, whether it be to nature or other human beings.

In the painting “Tower,” the concentrated beam of power is gathered and channeled from the hand of the background figure. “For me,” Pearce states, “It’s all about the transmission of power and authority. The Baptist is the conduit for power to be given to the Christ – it’s not that the Baptist has any power himself, but that human traditions enable authority.”

An androgynous figure in “The Magician” is dressed in black and white stripes and holds a wand and a bowl of fire aloft while standing among a compositionally balanced scene of desert rocks and high clouds. A small pool nearby represents the water element, and salt is lying upon the parched desert sands. The flags represent the colors of the alchemical process.

Five angels hover luminously above two figures in “The Day,” the strips of their dresses so expertly rendered that they appear to glow upon the walls of the gallery. The colors and the movement of the angels is breathtaking; they appear as if just risen – fresh lifted – prior to their painted immortalization. Also noteworthy is the gown of the standing woman which dusts the ground with an ethereal elegance, sparkling like a celestial waterfall.

Pearce painted “The Day” as his friend and mentor (represented as the male figure in the painting) slowly succumbed to cancer. Pearce’s mentor, who often wrote on the topic of love and fidelity (note in the painting: the glinting gold wedding band, the hand over the heart, and the inclusion of a red rose), would check in on the progress of the painting and the two men shared tearful moments during these emotional studio visits. Imagine the comfort this painting brought to one facing his own mortality. There is strength in knowing that open-armed angels, bathed in sweet music, will be with you during the transition to the other side, where a warm glow will wrap you in an embrace as your soul enters its new home.

In “Black Hole Soul” in which the subject was modeled by one of Michael’s students, the full-bodied possession of anger is portrayed as a second head pulling away from sanity as an enlarged arm with strained fingers rears back in an expression of torment. Anger often feels this way – completely overpowering – like a werewolf’s curse under the spell of a full moon.

The Secret Painting titled “There is No Dark Side of the Moon” is based on a tarot card, and in this piece, the female subject is ripe with pregnancy, about to give birth. In this moment, mysterious thoughts and ideas- represented by blue, flake-like moths – come forth from her mouth as two crumbling towers break apart behind her.

The sheathed models in the “Veiled” collection were wrapped in plastic and sheer fabric and then photographed and painted by the artist. In the paintings, the women wear expressions that are open to interpretation. With slightly parted lips, they appear as if they might produce barely audible inhalations or gentle, minute moans. The viewer is left to wonder, are these subjects being preserved or protected, or are they somehow trapped in this seemingly delicate enclosure, seeking a way to escape. Perhaps it is a bit of both – we hide to protect ourselves yet at the same time we seek to grow outside our comfort zones and make new connections.

In one of the “Veiled” paintings titled “Nimbus,” the model appears as a semi-translucent specimen set between two giant glass slides and viewed through a microscope, while the material encasing her succeeds at resembling both a permeable cell membrane, and a cloth constructed from the wing of an enormous insect. You can feel the figure struggling in slow motion, in a flattened runner’s posture, either reaching for her face to free herself, or beckoning some unseen presence.

Michael’s website states that The Secret Paintings “use imaginative scenes rendered in epic scale that draw viewers into their narratives and engage them in an immersive experience with allegorical symbolism which thoughtfully references contemporary topics including the environment, relationships, and ancestry. They are seductive and meaningful and attract a large audience that admires them both for their technical merits and for the imaginative world created by the artist.”

This immersion and engagement was very apparent at Michael’s well-attended, lively reception, which I attended the day after initially meeting with the artist. Conversations and questions abound at the reception, and I witnessed many onlookers deeply engaged within the stories these paintings told to them. The artwork in the room inspired its many viewers that night with its ancient stories, and it welcomed individual interpretation of what was painted.

Michael Pearce

The openness of the work, combined with Pearce’s charming demeanor and vast knowledge of the intriguing subject matter, cultivated an almost “therapeutic” air within the reception, thus serving to facilitate the clouty trees’ purpose of lightening the human burden. Contented attendees therefore fully acted upon the opportunity to write wishes, prayers, worries, and quotes onto the provided strips of cloth before tying them to the clouty trees. Some quoted their favorite authors and poets, while others left prayers or stated profound affirmations.

Amina Santana (right) modeled for the painting “I Want the World and I Want It Now”

I wrote about the anger and grief I’m experiencing as my elderly father’s dementia takes away his life. I wrote slowly at first, deep in thought, but that thoughtfulness soon changed to anger and my pen felt forced, as if I’d finally given myself permission to “let it all out.” The act of externalizing my worries and anger felt significant, like an emotional weight loss. And as I looked around the room, I knew I wasn’t the only one who appreciated the opportunity that Michael Pearce’s work had given me that night.


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