Stephen Paul Day and Sibylle Peretti Essay

Stephen Paul Day and Sibylle Peretti Essay

Stephen Paul Day and Sibylle Peretti
Fall 2004 Fellows

Sibylle Peretti and Stephen Day, Fall 2004 Resident Fellows collaborating at the Creative Glass Center of America, are successful solo artists who pursue an on-going pas de deux. Each exhibits more often individually and has a reputation initiated before the collaboration began over a decade ago.

At times, especially when seen together, similarities in some of their work makes it difficult to determine the author (Occasional individual pieces are co-authored.), but usually there are identifiable differences. Day works more often in non-glass materials including cast bronze, which he studied before glass. He is more likely to combine a number of discreet elements in a single piece. Though Peretti also uses materials other than glass, her work appears more homogeneous. She often works from or with old photographs and statues of children. Much of Peretti’s work is layered so one looks through these strata to apprehend the whole. Day’s tends to be stacked; so one views a column composed of distinct parts, sometimes joined in a seemingly precarious manner. Each approach can effectively suggest narrative.

Both artists have a keen sense of the archetypal, quasi-mythic elements which unite lives across time and geography. They celebrate fairytales and circus-like fantasy. In spite of very different backgrounds of study, they share certain conventions and techniques of art-making. Both, for example, often cast busts directly from historical models.

This is their third residency at Wheaton Village. During the first, back in 1992, which Day described as “pivotal,” they made a pair of Siamese twins which reflected their own sense of similarity. They worked in clay (later cast), one on each half of the siblings. They then joined them. “They are unique,” Peretti says. “We never did it again.”

In Peretti’s signature paired busts of children cast in pale milky glass, one seems to whisper in the other’s ear. Peretti frequently works with pairs: brother and sister or twins. The whispering busts, though, are separate objects and our recognition that they don’t necessarily belong together or, at least, in close proximity, adds a frisson of anguish. Peretti likes to rearrange their positions. She says. “I want to make the figures more natural looking so they’re really alive.” She claims that all her figurative pieces “are independent of me. They make their own way. I put real personalities in them. It’s more fun that way.” She also acknowledges that it would be hard to part with them if she didn’t set a limitation on the relationship.

The significance of human pairs is as layered as Peretti’s construction. Do images of siblings communicating along a beaded thread or of joined heads suggest an attenuation or fragility of communication or a suffocating excess of intimacy? Are these twinned entities really mirrors of the self with its inner dialogue and mysteries. Peretti takes much of her imagery from old medical illustrations. Reviewers remark on the level of human portraiture in these scientific sources, a representation of personality which would be eliminated from contemporary scientific materials. Peretti has said she restores dignity to these objects of the clinical gaze.

“Her work has always been much darker than mine,” Day maintains. “If it looks sad, it’s probably Peretti; If it looks more historical, it’s probably me.”

Peretti agrees, saying, “I always like to play with something of beauty and pain,” but, she suggests these tendencies were stronger in her early work. “When you’re young, you think much more about the edge, death, or morbid ideas.”

While Peretti “really puts personality” into her cast heads, Day’s, though similarly working from historic reproductions or authentic antiques (usually adults rather than children), approaches these objects as objects, drawing attention to the metaphorical armature of cultural convention which determines their form. Even the almost universal practice of making heads detached from bodies suggests a pervasive belief that the uniqueness of the individual resides in the brain and is most fully expressed on the countenance.

Day’s cast busts exploit the aesthetic tropes of different eras. Bubbles and other flaws which can result from the casting process are retained to give some pieces the air of obvious—perhaps badly mass-produced products. Is it a commentary on cultural production or a broader reflection of the intrinsic flaws in human nature?

Day’s pastiches of historic kitsch again call forth a more formal response to shapes, colors, materials and textures, where Peretti’s work shows tenderness toward the humanity buried within the made image.

Together they are a formidable team with complementary skills and sensibilities and a shared drive for perfection.

They met as teachers in Bavaria at the technical glass school where German born Peretti trained as a glass designer. There, she learned to make graals, an elaborate Swedish technique of engraving in which a colored layer of glass is engraved (or cut away) to build a shaded image and then cased in clear glass. This training emphasized a craft focus which she has abandoned; however, she still often employs two-dimensional layered imagery, though she seems to think of it in three-dimensional terms. “I like to work the background and foreground—even on glass or Plexiglas.” She likes to use color but sparingly. In recent work ruddy tones suggest flesh as a subject, not a coloring-in of specific areas. Muted layers of blue may imply atmosphere or water or the old scientific photographs she often appropriates as source material. But the blues and the reds don’t appear in the same work. “I wouldn’t use a lot of different colors. It asks the eye to do too much.” Peretti went on to study in the Academy of Fine Arts in Köln and eventually earned an MFA there.

When they met, Day says there was an “instant connection. Back then, our graphic was more similar than it is now.” They discovered how much of an aesthetic they shared, as they found themselves drawing on napkins in bars and comparing ideas.

Born in Iowa, Day grew up in Baton Rouge; however, he says, “my parents were well-traveled.” He attended high school in Vienna and first studied glass in Paris where he attended the Ecole Nationale Superiere des Beaux Arts for four years after earning his Batchelor’s degree. His earliest work with glass there was with stained glass. He earned his masters in sculpture and glass at Louisianna State University where he also studied video, which he still uses in his installations. He went on to teach at L.S.U. and built a hot shop there and developed the sculptural glass program. Both Day and Peretti have traveled all over the world making glass and teaching.

Many of Day’s works reflect his interest in opera and a strong sense of theatricality. The act of looking, is often underlined by restricting or framing the viewer’s perspective. Day’s ironic treatment of imagery and artifacts from the past exposes our understanding—even our confidence in history—as a response to a theatrical re-enactment with a problematic, or at least, unverifiable relationship to what really happened.

Day likes to work thematically. “I like to do a lot of research when I do a show.” Though it’s too early to articulate thoughts for the collaborative installation the artists are beginning at CGCA under the theme “Connection,” he likes to do solo thematic installations on what might be described as a contemporary similar form of fairy tale, the fictionalized biography of the kind of person regarded as a cultural icon. The life of Tennessee Williams, who lived in New Orleans and made plays about this city, where both Day and Peretti now live and work half the year, is a provocative subject. Day’s association with New Orleans dating back to the time when Williams was still alive (He died in 1983). Day’s interest in Williams as a subject might obliquely parallel his collaborative work with Peretti. Like all biographies it suggests a certain mirroring. “Tennessee was part of my environment. I have a video tape of him being interviewed in New Orleans.” Day’s research actually extended to interviewing an actress who played Blanche in “Streetcar” and he shares Williams’ perception that New Orleans is a more European American city. “In Europe,” Day says, “Conversation is still regarded.”

In fact, Louisiana as a whole is a good place for artists. “In Louisiana, you get to know many cultures.” It was an early nexus of European culture in the US. Day is interested in the Neoclassical painters of this area, and the influence of artists like David and Delacroix.

Although, Day describes New Orleans as “very decadent, very dangerous,” but both artists appreciate the European flavor of this city. Peretti points out that “in the old days, there was more discussion among artists.” In New Orleans today weekly salon meetings of artists are mentioned as an ideal while in Köln such meetings actually take place.

In April or May Peretti and Day shift to the Bavarian Alps and Köln, where Peretti has long maintained a small apartment and studio with rents so affordable it would be foolish to give them up. From Germany they can easily visit Paris and Prague, among the many sources of antiques and historical reproductions which they cast or utilize in other ways.

The work they are completing at CGCA is destined for a collaborative show in Munich. It takes about a year to pull together such a show. In addition to utilizing hot and kiln formed objects, as well as blown and painted forms, they specifically plan to work on sulphide inclusions at CGCA. This complex 18th century process, also called “cameo incrustation,” involves encasing an opaque, usually white, relief in solid glass.

The high level of illustrative detail made possible though this technique will add yet another dimension to an installation which will incorporate much more than the glass. Day plans projected images and film elements while Peretti will execute objects in space.

When they aren’t in the studio, they are antiquing in the New Jersey area, seeking pieces potentially suitable for their own work. Both artists appear very relaxed, very comfortable within the collaboration. The hardest part they say is choosing among so many options of form, material, and expression.

Alone and together (themes which pervade the individual oeuvre of both artists), Day and Peretti have a truly complementary understanding of art-making.

Day: “It’s all entertainment but I take it seriously.”

Peretti: “It’s all serious, but I’m entertained.”