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Art in Focus Spotlight: Hilary Pecis

By Julie Smith SchneiderJul 7 2021

Rays of California sunshine now illuminate Rockefeller Center, thanks to the exquisite paintings of Los Angeles–based artist Hilary Pecis. Her cheery, color-drenched images of domestic spaces are designed with keen observations and telling details about their inhabitants: blooms bursting from vases on brightly patterned tablecloths, jaunty stacks of art books, and a lemon-yellow sofa with mismatched pillows. Her outdoor scenes center largely on Southern California slice-of-life streetscapes and landscapes with dappled mountains, spiky desert plants, and a particular clarity of light. Creating a visual contrast with the dark marbles of the Art Deco architecture, Pecis’s vibrant acrylic landscapes and still lifes offer pops of lush, jungly hues across the campus as the latest exhibition in the 2021 Art in Focus series, produced in partnership with Art Production Fund.

Photo by Olympia Shannon, courtesy of Art Production Fund

Vinyl murals with about 40 of Pecis’s paintings are installed throughout the inside and outside spaces, and three mixed-media installations, featuring original paintings with hand-painted fabric and decals, fill the vitrine spaces at 45 Rockefeller Plaza. “I hope that when people are looking at these paintings, it helps them see their own spaces and domestic settings in a different way,” Pecis says, with an invitation to also notice the pleasures of the natural world in our own backyards: “Wild, amazing beauty is so close, right at our fingertips.”

Pecis grew up in Redding, a small town in Northern California near the Oregon border. Her start as an artist came early in life. “I would say from the age of six is when I really felt like I was an artist,” she says. At that age, in the mid-1980s, she spent a lot of time watching a PBS television series called The Secret City Adventures, whose charming host, known as Commander Mark, taught kids how to draw. The show made a big impression on Pecis. She got hooked on drawing, and has never stopped making art since.

She later earned both a BFA and an MFA from California College of the Arts, in 2006 and 2009, respectively, where she primarily made digital collage-based artwork. Along the way her work has shifted fully into representational painting made the old-fashioned, tactile way—with brushes, paint, and water. Her entry into motherhood and a move to Los Angeles from Northern California, she says, may have been part of her artistic shift into making the sensitive, keenly observed landscapes and still-life paintings that she makes today—historical art genres Pecis finds to be rich and “infinite” sources of inspiration.

After her move to Southern California, Pecis worked as a registrar at an art gallery, and fit in her art practice around her work schedule. She had her first solo show in New York City in 2017 at Joshua Liner Gallery (now closed). After that show, her art career kept picking up momentum, to the point that she was able to quit her job as a registrar in early 2019 and make art full-time. “That’s been incredible. I feel like that’s the dream,” Pecis says. Since leaving her day job, she now spends six days a week in her studio, located in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Frogtown. With more time to paint, she has started working at larger scales, with paintings ranging from about 32-by-26 inches to about 74-by-100 inches. “I like making the bigger paintings because, as a viewer, they have more of an entry point, like you can [physically] relate more to the scale,” Pecis says. “And it's just more fun.”

Photo by Olympia Shannon, courtesy of Art Production Fund

Pecis has spent much of the past year happily holed up in her 550-square-foot studio, inside a building she shares with four other women artists, who also make colorful artwork. “There's five children between all of us, and three dogs, and even a cat,” Pecis says of the creative environment. “I think there's a good vibe in this building. We've all become friends.” Paintings line the perimeter of Pecis’s workspace, propped up on orange buckets to make it easier for Pecis to paint the bottom edges. A healthy stash of acrylic paints from Nova Color, her favorite local paint supplier, fills carts. As she paints, Mango, her Chihuahua, hangs out on a dog bed, and on Saturdays, Pecis’s son Apollo joins them and plays with LEGO bricks. And, there’s always a bouquet of flowers and a stack of art books on the table—elements from her personal life that often appear in her paintings.

Each of Pecis’s paintings originates from photographs she takes of her personal living spaces and those of her friends, landscapes she observes during trail runs, and streetscapes in Los Angeles and other places where she has traveled. Though figurative portraiture is not her genre of choice, Pecis’s domestic scenes often carry the intimacy of a different sort of chronicle of human life. “Occasionally, there's evidence of a person, like a shadow or a body part. But for the most part, I keep figures out, especially faces, because I feel like the spaces themselves tell enough about a person: their interests, their habits,” Pecis says. “Whereas a portrait, perhaps, doesn't; it's just the shell of the person. There's a lot of pressure, I think, to try to sum up a person by their features.”

She translates her photos directly onto canvas with a sketched composition. “Sometimes there's a wonkiness to the perspective,” Pecis noted, “and that's generally because I just stick with whatever quick sketch I originally put on the canvas.” She then works on the canvas, painting in the negative spaces last, resulting in vivid swaths of color that are, at times, reminiscent of the color-separated, screen-printed landscapes of Works Progress Administration–era national parks posters. “I wish I had confidence like Alex Katz or something. He makes quick paintings with broad, perfect gestures,” Pecis mused. “But the reality is I'm coming at it with more insecurity. I keep painting over and over until the colors feel right.” Sometimes you can spot these different layers as textures on her canvases, which lend to their charm.

Pecis’s paintings—these distinctive windows into her personal world and her refreshing spin on the tried-and-true genres of landscape and still life—have now taken up residence at Rockefeller Center. “During the pandemic, I spent so much time indoors, looking and focusing and making intimate paintings from my experiences,” Pecis says. “Now that things are opening up, I'm really excited to be able to share these paintings. Being able to present this work to such a wide audience in such a historic place that is a beacon of culture? It's very exciting.”

Hilary Pecis’s exhibition is on view throughout the Rockefeller Center campus through September 2. This installation is part of Art in Focus, a series of art exhibitions produced in partnership with Art Production Fund.

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