Peter Gelker Brings His Whirligigs to Begovich Gallery

Mourning the loss of his recently deceased father, Santa Ana psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Peter Gelker picked up the woodworking tools the old man had left behind, read a few how-to books and began to create art. The resulting whirligigs—mechanized weather vanes powered by the air—were inspired by folk art, but they are miles away from the cutesy naiveté associated with it: brightly colored, complex and intricate, primal in their imagination, brimming with ideas dark and light. Friends complimented the pieces, but Gelker considered it a hobby; he didn't think of himself as an artist at all, and the work sat in his garage and living room for the better part of a decade. Guest curator Lynn Gamwell, a historian specializing in art and psychology, heard of him, followed the work posted on his website and made contact. The end result is Begovich Gallery's beguiling new touring show, “Whirligigs: The Art of Peter Gelker.”

Gamwell's enthusiasm for the work evokes a host of literary allusions in her curator notes, from Mary Shelley to Baudelaire, Camus and the Bible. Edited and added to by Gelker, they're smart, informative and engaging without being top-heavy with psychobabble or art speak, broadening the understanding of the work in an honest, lively way.

The progressive politics of Gelker's work scores points with its concise imagery: In day job, a shirtless brown man whips at 14 brown galley slaves aboard a ship; the sail is full and extended, with both the violence and the rowing an unnecessary waste. While the artist describes man chasing dollar as a bit of anti-materialist philosophy, I saw a rough-hewn, unpainted, unadorned wooden figure reaching for a winged dollar bill just out of his grasp. Propellers decorated with dollar bills whirl away behind him, forcing him forward, unaware that all he has to do is turn around. In worker & capitalist, a fat stand-in for Monopoly's Rich Uncle Pennybags is having a paper money tug-of-war with a construction worker. In Gelker's hopeful vision (dating from 2001, when it was still arguably true), the bill is beginning to tear, with the worker getting the bigger share.

The three pieces from his “Neurology” series are hardest to describe and, to my unscientific brain, the hardest to read, so I had to pay extra attention to Gamwell's posted comments to understand them. All three are made from recycled tin cans, a nice irony to consider when reading about complex brain functions as child memories of telephone and a new spin on “junk science” comes to mind.

It's in the darker pieces that the artist pulls a Joseph Campbell, using familiar iconography to suggest an array of dizzying psycho/sexual truths: As religion and science (in the guise of a loincloth-wearing Jesus and a robot) yank and threaten to tear apart a child between them in evolution, science wins, as a child beheads his cleaver-wielding mother with a remote-controlled robot swinging a sword (now who's boss?). In expulsion, religion rules the day as Adam, Eve and their sexual shame are sent packing through a vaginal-red gate festooned with yellow flowers, leaving a tiny half-eaten apple in their wake. Christ sits in His cloud, gloriole around him, pointing the way out, while the snake pokes its head out of the Tree of Knowledge directly below Him, looking all the world like the Son of God’s mischievous green penis.

Automated identity and mechanical sexuality take a hit in the socially relevant object relations, as a nude woman stands in another vagina/red doorway (labial double doors opening and closing), doing a peepshow for an audience of agitated (presumably male) robots. The sexual symbolism continues in shark attacking squid (and, to a lesser extent, soldier & spider), with their phallic substitutions and subtle insinuations of oral sex.

While all of the pieces are accessible to some degree—their childlike simplicity deceptively drawing the viewer in—perhaps the most unsettling are the numerous depictions of death, releasing (or embracing, depending on your view) the anxiety it causes in all of us: As a nude man breast-strokes in the ocean (shark and swimmer), a shark close behind opens its mouth to chomp down on his crotch. A crowned ruler glances over his shoulder at the skeleton tip-toeing behind him, as he blissfully walks into the toothy jaws of an infernal hell creature in front of him. Another skeleton pulls a patient from his doctor's grasp into the abyss, and a wild-haired man frantically pushes against the door to keep the scythe-carrying specter at bay.

Gelker himself considers the pieces a Rorschach of sorts, encouraging viewers to make their own associations. While he good-naturedly even allows us a glimpse into his own anxiety—a therapist gets his head ripped off by a patient's subconscious bug-eyed monster—no matter where you look in this generous, insightful exhibition, all you'll see is yourself.

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