You won’t see many men in Peter Cerreta’s paintings, unless they’re Nazified rapists of Europa, say, or purveyors of war. It has something to do with his greater interest in—and much greater sympathies for—women. Maybe it’s because of how, at 81, he is still moved by the mistreatment of his own mother, merely for being a woman, the slights and dismissiveness she endured in the 1930s and 40s. She never made it past that decade, never saw the early years of the civil rights or women’s movement. But she may well be the inspiration for Cerreta’s favored theme: the underdog with a hint of wiliness, of triumph just ahead, whether his subjects are whore or nuns, or a combination of both: they don’t seem far apart.
- The retrospective of Peter Cerreta’s paintings and sculptures opens with a free reception Saturday, March 10, from 6 to 9 p.m. and runs through the month at Hollingsworth Gallery, located at City Market Place, 160 Cypress Point Parkway, behind Walmart, in Palm Coast. Call 386/871-9546 for details.
Take his “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” the portrait of a Rushmore-nosed nun with her forefinger on her lips, shushing you, a sacerdotal chalice in her left hand, probably just swiped from the altar, a rosary around her neck, burgundy colored of course, and a wine stain the size of Napa Valley on her white-garbed chest. Look closer and you’ll notice nail polish that tends toward orange—incidentally, the color streetwalkers in Mexico like to wear on their fingers—and a wedding ring. She’s married to god, Cerreta says. Or maybe Bacchus, the god of wine. Either way she’s been around a while, her old-horse look suggesting she’s seen her share of secrets. She wants you to be part of her latest. It’s a delightful seduction, worth every drop in that chalice.
It’s why Cerreta, whose one-man show opens tonight at Hollingsworth Gallery in Palm Coast and runs through the month, himself evokes a bit of that rascal nature you see in the nun’s expression.
“That’s just the way he’s wired. His personality is like that Daumier kind of humor,” says JJ Graham, owner of Hollingsworth and a colleague of Cerreta’s: they both teach art at Hollingsworth, and Cerreta recently edited a catalogue of Hollingsworth’s artists. Honoré Daumier is the 19th century French painter and caricaturist whose works anticipated the political cartoons of the 20th century: he thumbed his noses at the powerful and the rich, and at convention. One of Cerreta’s paintings is just bthat: a woman thumbing her nose—at what, you decide.
“I also think too,” Graham continues, “that he’s kind of been a bird on a wire a lot. When you get to know Peter you know that he’s a father, he’s a grandfather, and he did all this things where he was very responsible, and he never maybe got to let that rascal out as much as he would like, so it comes out in his paintings a lot. It’s where it shows up. I think it’s where he likes it. But when you get to know Peter, he’s whimsical, he can also be very forthcoming with his opinions when it comes to his critiques,. You have to have a thick skin around him, which is good. Some people run from it.”
Some people might have the same reaction to Cerreta’s work. It’s forthcoming. It’s blunt. In colors, shapes and themes, and except for his more recent abstract period (the influence of the Hollingsworth school, where abstraction is caffeine), it doesn’t usually leave you guessing, even though the very same painting could be interpreted in many different ways.
In “Where Is He Now,” a slightly pregnant redhead with a cigarette in one hand (and several snuffed out cigarette butts in the ashtray next to her) is gazing nowhere in what looks like the light of a setting sun, a cat at her feet. There’s a man’s watch half-dangling from the table: he never even bothered putting it back on. “Yes, I’m Still Relevant” could be the same woman, three decades later, propping herself on a daybed, a scrawnier cat trying to catch her attention from her hips. There are several whore paintings: streetwalkers on a corner, a Muslim prostitute nakedly, indifferently awaiting her next customer as two women appear to be showing her the stones that’ll be raining on her head soon and a dark figure in the distance points either to the next trick or to hell. A third painting, Cerreta describes as “sort of a madam.” “A lot of my work,” he says, “is comment on human behavior, and she’s living in a very luxurious environment, however her source of income is a little shady.” In a series of three Japanese-style paintings, the geisha appears.
There’s a lot more variety at Hollingsworth, of course: “A Rebel With a Cause” (the woman thumbing her nose at what’s expected), a painting of two Japanese women exchanging a gift during the last world war, in a moment designed to show surviving humanity beyond the stereotype.
Cerreta is from White Plains, N.Y. He was in the military for four years, teaching military law. That’s where he got his interest in teaching. “I never even expected to go to college, and if it weren’t for the military I wouldn’t even have gone to college. You know, the financial help. I was going to study stenotype and become a court reporter.” His father-in-law encouraged him to go back to school. So he did. He was then in education for 30 years as an art teacher (all grades), counselor, vice principal and administrator.
For 17 years, he and his wife ran The Armchair Art Gallery out of their home in Hawthorne, N.Y. He lectured on art there and in other homes. It was lucrative enough that at age 57, he decided to retire. The Cerretas had a house in Port St. Lucie. Driving by Palm Coast once they stopped, looked around and liked what they saw. Peter asked where the country club was, and bought his first house here across the street from the Pine Lakes Country Club. He’s never been able to sit and watch the grass grow, so he took his two master’s degrees to what’s now Daytona State College and started teaching there—art appreciation, design, painting, sculpture.
And of course he painted and sculpted. There are about a dozen sculptures on display in the Hollingsworth show. One of his students turned over a model home of his for a Cerreta show. It was quite successful. Works sold. Cerreta worked more, and sold more. He was Flagler County’s Artist of the Year in 2000. He’s not done. If anything, he seems to be going through a personal renaissance, which he credits to Graham. He wouldn’t be the first.
“I never said that I was an artist or a painter until I became affiliated with this gallery,” Cerreta says. “This guy, he has something that’s extremely intangible, coupled with a drive, super-sensitivity, arrogance, all of that. It’s leading to his success, but it also said to me, hey, you know, you are an artist, because we debate, we talk about art, he comments about mine, I comment about his. Quite honestly I feel very strongly this way, and that is: if I win, if I have a one-man show, it’s not only good for me, it’s good for all artists, because they could look at it an day, you know something, there might be something in that that I could emulate. Not necessarily the piece, but the feeling it evokes.”