Joseph Peller’s show, titled “Circadian Rhythms of the City,” featured paintings of iconic New York scenes: tugboats in the harbor, rush-hour crowds at Grand Central Terminal, dawn over the Williamsburg Bridge. But the most memorable images were casual observations, such as a rain-slicked street in Chelsea glowing red under a theater marquee, Bethesda Fountain rising out of blue-tinted snow in Central Park, and hustlers lolling under amber streetlamps in Union Square. Peller characteristically works from life and often uses himself and his friends as subjects.
The high-key color and moody lighting of Peller’s paintings capture the grit and romance of Manhattan, harking back to the early 20th century of George Bellows and the Ashcan School. Some pieces in this exhibition gestured back further. A couple of large canvases conjured an upper-crust Manhattan that could have been inhabited by robber barons. In one, a young man with a cigar and his bare-shouldered date share brandy and dessert as they sit in a sumptuous restaurant with a reproduction of Tintoretto’s Leda and the Swan hanging just above their heads. In another, a pale, black-gowned woman with vermilion hair poses beside a piano, exuding an icy but erotic vibe reminiscent of John Singer Sargent’s Madame X.
Peller is as adept in pastels, watercolor, and etching as he is in oil, and he has peppered many of these pieces with references to art history. His Fireworks (2002), a pastel on paper, captures the Whistlerian poetry of pyrotechnics exploding through mist. Wake of the Ferry (2014), another pastel on paper, is an homage to John Sloan’s painting of the same name. Peller has smartly restyled old New York in 21st-century garb while also looking at the present head-on. In Saturday Morning (2014), he captures a woman in her natural habitat—ensconced in her office and surrounded by books, computers, and papers.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 99.