Whitehot Magazine

Big Secrets in a Tiny Town: The Art of Cate Pasquarelli

Installation view of Museum of Embellished History

Cate Pasquarelli: Museum of Embellished History

Curated by Sara Driver

SPRING/BREAK Art Show 2023

By STEPHEN WOZNIAK September 10, 2023

Cate Pasquarelli’s diminutive yet daring art is a clever reminder that small worlds are often packed with big secrets. Her mighty, magical, figure-free tableaus are like the freeze-frame aftermath of deep, enigmatic scenes from a harrowing David Lynch film or a melancholic Andrew Wyeth painting. They are, in many ways, surreal play stations – discrete theatrical settings where something wicked, wild, and distinctly breathtaking just happened. But it’s always a question of what. As viewers, we act as witnesses: watching, waiting, wanting, wondering, and also asking, “What’s next?” These beautifully crafted works lure us through their lush landscapes and deliver us to the scene of delirium and – sometimes – disaster. On the recommendation of a friend, I saw a few key Pasquarelli sculptures online this time last year, but now that they’re on view in the SPRING/BREAK Art Show 2023, my eyes have feasted and filled up on their mostly three-dimensional, real-life glory.   

Cate Pasquarelli’s new collection of majestic glass-enclosed dioramas, paintings, and photographs comprise the Museum of Embellished History exhibitions, a series of modest displays by her alter ego, artist ‘Peter Landon’, about local events in fictitious New Bantam, Connecticut, where he grew up. Landon’s murky recollection of small-town, second-hand stories passed down to him from his mother and father result in enchanting, dreamlike, hyperbolic scenarios that each involve a home whose inhabitants are never featured, but whose lives are inalterably affected by a disruptive event. Pasquarelli conflates Landon’s broken narratives with salient imagery that catches your attention and doesn’t let go.  

Cate Pasquarelli, Flood, 55” x 25.5” x 25.5”, 2023. Plexiglas case, wood, resin, string, Mylar, fabric, wire

One such piece is Flood, a large, free-standing sculpture framed in black that features a modest 19th-century home covered up to its second-floor dormers in rippling, glassy, charcoal river water. It’s clear that a vicious storm hit town and caused definite disaster. We see a small boat and oars just outside the top-floor window, but not quite close enough to save the day. A few yards away, pole-strung power lines look as if they could spark and discharge at any second, electrocuting anyone nearby – defeating any life-saving attempts. But where are the inhabitants? It’s hard to say. Perhaps they drowned on the ground floor. Of course, we’ll never know.

Another great piece in the show is Small Town, which features an inviting, rolling, green, grassy landscape populated by pleasant model train trees, a classic steeple-topped church, and a couple of modest, monochromatic, H0-scaled houses. Though, just as serene-scene comfort sets in, lo and behold, above it all, four tiny helicopters cable-tethered to a white, plantation-style, four-columned mansion carry it away to some far-off location. How could this be? Is this house and what it may represent – power, privilege, and abhorrent behavior – being set out to pasture? Or is the past-we’d-rather-forget-but-must-remember being saved from destruction – or worse, selective reconstruction? Who can say? The piece is playful enough for us to enjoy its folly and fantasy but it also reveals darker allusions to the utter fear and loathing experienced during the times of slavery and deep oppression.

Cate Pasquarelli, Small Town, 63” x 36” x 14”, 2023. Glass case, foam, wood, wire, string, plastic, turf, sandpaper, twigs.

While the title of the show clearly tells us that real, imagined, and very tall tales have fueled the unusual representations of Landon’s fertile mind and offered them as venerated truth on and around the white walls of a “museum,” many of the works in Pasquarelli’s show also, importantly, address the notion of home. What is ‘home’ exactly? A place of solace and retreat or an incidental location of gloomy family memories that are best left alone? In her work, Pasquarelli treats these buildings as central, activated characters – spaces that are as vulnerable as the inhabitants we never glimpse but who are unmistakably present. The structures certainly live a difficult and delightful life and sometimes – make that every time – signal that such life will end, as it does for all of us. But if there’s hope before the lights go out, we have to ask where the idea and actuality of home lie and how we reconcile it or somehow rescue it, and the memories of its dwellers, after it has fallen.  WM


Stephen Wozniak

Stephen Wozniak is a visual artist, writer, and actor based in Los Angeles. His work has been exhibited in the Bradbury Art Museum, Cameron Art Museum, Leo Castelli Gallery, and Lincoln Center. He has performed principal roles on Star Trek: EnterpriseNCIS: Los Angeles, and the double Emmy Award-nominated Time Machine: Beyond the Da Vinci Code. He co-hosted the performing arts series Center Stage on KXLU radio in Los Angeles and guest hosts Art World: The Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art podcast in New York City. He earned a B.F.A. from Maryland Institute College of Art and attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. To learn more, go to: www.stephenwozniakart.com and www.stephenwozniak.com. Follow Stephen on Instagram at @stephenwozniakart and @thestephenwozniak.

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