This is the month of resolutions, and people pick all kinds — like exercising more, tidying up or quitting booze. But John Peña tried something more ambitious: He decided to document every single day with a pencil drawing and accompanying paragraph, for two full years.
Peña is no stranger to daily discipline: This is the same man who wrote and sent a letter to the Pacific Ocean each day for nearly a decade. And that commitment, combined with his intense emotional openness, helped Pittsburgh Center for the Arts dub Peña Emerging Artist of the Year.
A sampling of Peña's drawings — dating from between April 23, 2011 and Nov. 14, 2011 — is now on display at PCA, and it is astonishing. Seeing a book-length work arranged on the plain white walls, in chronological order, gives visitors a sense of how painstaking his process is. What's more, Peña is not a happy-go-lucky character. His black-and-white drawings often have an Edward Gorey somberness, and his autobiographical writings are as unguarded as any private diary.
"Sitting in a Chinese Restaurant [sic] on a rainy day feeling really alone," Peña writes early in the series. "I feel like I am wasting my life with these stupid fucking drawings," he says later, after a failed sketch is blacked out entirely. If you're interested in the inner life of a struggling artist, Peña is a ripe fruit: He wrestles with money, relationships, children, changing houses and even the weather. He documents a panic attack at The Andy Warhol Museum. He describes depression and ennui. In one sucker-punch surprise, Peña reads about Hurricane Irene, which is threatening to destroy the East Coast. But he pauses mid-read, because he has run out of free articles on the New York Times website. "LAME," he writes.
Peña studied at Carnegie Mellon University, and like many CMU grads, he works in a variety of media. His video "Untitled Cloud Series" shows Peña's shadow across a green lawn. As the clouds move above, his shadow changes tint and coloration. At times, his shadow disappears. The video is very different from the drawings, but they complement each other perfectly. Life marches on, his work suggests, whether it's sunny or overcast. Sometimes you feel distinguished and purposeful. Sometimes, it's like you're not even there.
JOHN PEÑA: EMERGING ARTIST OF THE YEAR continues through Jan. 22. Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, 6300 Fifth Ave., Shadyside. Free. 412-361-0873 or www.pittsburgharts.org