Within Daniel Pettitt’s exhibition Skeleton Tree there is a painting entitled Cephas (2022). The word means “rock” in Aramaic, and suggests a rock that is both real and symbolic – a building block or first stone placed into an architectural structure as a kind of dedication. This seems like a clue left by the painter, a possible suggestion to begin consideration of Skeleton Tree with his cornerstone, Cephas.
As with the other acrylic paintings on show, Cephas is roughly door-sized in scale, and in this way correlates to that of the human body. The painting contains an image in purple and black, almost text-like, which has been scrubbed and erased, appearing to drip down a solid ground of beige-pink. What exact words Pettitt initially inscribed onto the surface has now been lost, but this loss of specificity does not disqualify the painting from being symbolically potent. Indeed, the drawings and paintings within Skeleton Tree all manifest questions about the nature of communication or the limitations of so-called concretised meaning. Significantly, Pettitt’s visual language seems an invitation to read into or misread his images.
This obscured meaning seems to ask the viewer to decipher a message in an unknown language and adds both visuality and intimacy, creating a sense of urgency and of amorphous visual possibilities; qualities aligned with those of other Queer Abstractionists, such as Marsden Hartley, Matt Connors and Carrie Moyer.
The elegant, graffiti-like text and images are not only edited by the hand and brush, but also obscured and transformed through the use of colourful aqueous medias that spill across both paper and canvas. This washing away or erasure points to a world where the structures of words can be loosened and blurred. It seems to be associated with the transformative power of water. The movement of tides and the often fierce nature of the sea are an ever-present concern for those surrounded by it, as is true of Pettitt, a native of Brighton on the south coast of Britain, where these works were conceived.
Drips and stains additionally connect Pettitt’s pieces to the work of Surrealists who allowed liquid medias to make their own impulsive paths on paper and canvas, engaging with the elements of chance and randomness. Perhaps another nod to the forces of nature, synchronicity, and the seasons which inspire Pettitt and appear in his poetic series of titles over recent years, including Crop Rotation, Granite and Rainbow and July.
Pettitt’s images dissolve into a weather that brews within the landscape of his paintings and drawings. Soft pastel shades and muted colours form these grounds within the larger acrylic paintings, and more saturated colours form the palette for the land and sky suggested within his smaller, more intimate drawings.
Interestingly, these ink and watercolour drawings are not displayed singularly in frames on the walls; instead they lie together in groups, ensconced inside vitrines that suggest specimen cabinets, or 19th century natural history museum curatorial design, or noticeboards in school hallways – all simultaneously visible and protected. This choice of display creates a fruitful visual dialogue between these diary-like pages and portal-like canvases, demonstrating the fluid exchange of Pettitt’s process.
Reflecting upon the title of Pettitt’s exhibition, Skeleton Tree, I see the skeleton tree as a mirror image of branches and roots that remains standing, despite no longer being animate. It is perhaps a ‘memento mori’ that encourages us to consider the brevity of life so we may embrace liveliness.