Michael Pearce’s The Clouty Tree, the Devil and Me

by Nancy D. Lackey Shaffer

Figurative painter Michael Pearce makes unforgettable works of art. Big, colorful, with arresting images and a technique that borders on the photorealistic, Pearce’s work draws the viewer in with a larger-than-life approach that feels like fantasy, but tugs at the collective unconscious. History and imagination, myth and reality, allegory and actuality — Pearce understands that these opposites do attract and are inextricably linked. After all, we build our ideas of the future based (at least in part) on experiences from the past; and stories, fables and legends are used to understand the actual, physical world around us. Pearce integrates both sides of the story in The Clouty Tree, the Devil and Me, on exhibit now at the Kwan Fong Gallery at California Lutheran University.

In scope and presentation, the paintings on display represent a modern world, with contemporary clothing and hairstyles and figures that feel very much drawn from today. But the figures’ stances and expressions — arms open as if in prayer, eyes wide with wonder, lips parted in exaltation — suggest medieval religious iconography. Many of these works are part of Pearce’s The Secret Paintings series, begun in 2010 and still ongoing, and deal with issues facing humanity today: the environment, relationships, our past and present selves.

Pearce is at his most on-the-nose with “I Want the World and I Want It Now,” where a young woman in a black-and-white-striped catsuit and combat boots reaches for Planet Earth, the size of a ball in relation to her. Her determined expression suggests a modern-day sense of entitlement, an expectation of instant gratification. But note the planet not quite in her grasp: We might have the world at our fingertips, but it’s a precarious hold.

“Black Hole Soul” is also unsettling. A young man (again in black and white stripes) stares out, vaguely androgynous and with a serene, almost questioning glance. But out of his head swirls a less composed version of himself, seen in profile, with mouth screaming and hands like claws. It’s almost Jungian in scope: the dark, agitated, dangerous animus that lies hidden within.

Then there’s “Imperium,” which juxtaposes the feminine — earthy, primal, vines coming out of her mouth; and masculine — seated on a ladderlike throne that’s thrust into the sky, holding scepter (a stick) and orb. Her vines climb up the throne and his legs; despite his elevation, he is of and subject to the earth, integrating the male/female in a single image. There’s an alchemical feel to this composition, which fits with Pearce’s studies of late-medieval alchemy and natural magic, which, of course, make an interesting complement to medieval and Renaissance religious art.

An associate professor of art at California Lutheran University since 2005, Pearce hails from Lincolnshire, England, and the influence of Celtic lore and custom has left its mark. The eponymous clouty tree from the exhibit is a tradition that dates back to pre-Christian times. In Scottish nomenclature, a “clouty” (also spelled “clootie”) is a strip of rag or cloth. Wells and springs considered sacred became places of pilgrimage. Visitors would dip cloth strips in the waters and say a prayer as they tied the strips to branches of trees that grew nearby. Sometimes photographs, trinkets, beads and other offerings were included. This was done as a healing ritual (in some variations, practitioners would wash an afflicted body part with the cloth first) or an offering. Trees bedecked with trailing ribbons and rags can still be seen today in parts of Scotland, Ireland and England.

For his modern-day clouty trees, Pearce constructed inside the gallery four 20-foot-tall structures from slender wood planks and bits of cloth, creating something akin to beribboned easels on stilts. Paintings are perched on top (it’s best to view them from the second floor), “making them into offerings to the sky.” These “offerings” include the ethereal “Illuminata” and “Float,” the beautifully icy “Winter” and “Amanita Eater,” a small portrait depicting the head of a sleeping man against a backdrop of bright red mushroom caps. Pearce encourages visitors to “tie their own rags to the trees, leaving their cares and prayers behind them.” And many have done just that, inscribing bits of poetry, philosophy and such onto their lengths.

The Clouty Tree, the Devil and Me reflects the psyche of the past, but it is very much about where we are today. Pearce contemplates the fears, beliefs and ideals that have compelled humans for centuries, seeing in their modern-day manifestation the same dread and wonder that drove medieval minds. His figures may have stepped onto the canvas from our own city streets, but the struggles within their souls are rooted in a dark and mysterious world. F

The Clouty Tree, the Devil and Me is on exhibit through April 7 at the Kwan Fong Gallery, Soiland Humanities Center at California Lutheran University, 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks. 493-3316 or https://blogs.callutheran.edu/kwanfong/.