The Subtle Armor of John Petrey’s Art
The Arts Company • May 2–27
by Gracie Pratt
Is it fabric? Is it metal? Wait, is that a bottle cap? What is it exactly? Since the beginning of his artistic career less than a decade ago, John Petrey has been turning heads and challenging preconceptions with his profound yet whimsical nod to fashion.
John Petrey’s turn to art has been recent. He spent the first two decades of his professional career as a food and beverage photographer and TV commercial director. He was a marketer and a businessman. But nine years ago, Petrey sensed the need for a change. As a hobby he had always enjoyed building racing motorcycles and repairing vintage cars, so he started working with his hands again. He began exploring the pliable components of usually resistant materials. He experimented with copper, steel, aluminum, wood, vintage materials, and repurposed industrial materials, fashioning the unexpected: clothing.
This interest in clothing, Petrey admits, came from watching shows from the 1960s like Leave It to Beaver and I Love Lucy and noticing the perfect ideal represented by characters’ clothing. “I have yet to meet anyone whose mother made breakfast in pearls and an apron,” Petrey says. But on television “women were always perfectly dressed, the men pretty much always had a tie on. [I was interested in] that whole perfection that television had in the midst of the Vietnam War, a drug culture, [and] racial issues in the country. Everything was perfect on television.”
Petrey’s sculptures provide insight into the fascinating capability of clothing to mask, to protect from, exposure to suffering, difficulty, or pain. While alluding to the soft, pliable materials such as fabric in his designs, the materials used are harsh, defensive, and strong. It is a paradox of what is expected contrasted with what actually is. Petrey acknowledges this juxtaposition, especially when it comes to the articles of clothing he designs for females. “I enjoy playing with the lure that women use with fashion to attract a mate. But by doing it with metal, I’m also creating armor. So, in other words, the work says come close, stay away.”
Yet the symbolic nature of Petrey’s work does not at all take away from its sheer beauty and intrigue. Any of Petrey’s sculptures might contain flattened bottle tops, copper plates, colored silverware, roofing shingles, and old soda cans, radically transformed into trim bodices, flaring skirts, ridged suits, and ruffled collars. The most rewarding part of his work, Petrey says, is knowing the surprise people experience when they realize things are not as they appear. “I make them smile. I make them discover that it is not fabric.” He’s inspired by the “wonderment in a child’s eyes when they look at what I do. You can see the wheels in their head turning.”
The Arts Company will be featuring works by John Petrey beginning on May 2, from 6 to 9 p.m., during the First Saturday Art Crawl Downtown. The exhibit will continue until May 27. The Arts Company is located in the historic downtown area at 215 5th Avenue North. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, please visit www.theartscompany.com.