A pandemic koan: if an art exhibition occurs in an empty airport, does it make a sound?
Painter Jerome Pelitera has been pondering this very thing ever since his solo show opened in Austin International Bergstrom Airport last November, nine months into the pandemic. “Before We Take Off” features 21 paintings, mostly of faces, with an early 80s Neo-expressionistic guise of inscrutable moods.
Pelitera, who is an employee of United Airlines, has been a keen observer of strangers coming and going in the blur of the terminal for almost 30 years. He’s a ramp serviceman, which means he’s in charge of everything on the ground: towing planes, directing aircraft on the runway, loading luggage. All the stuff half watched from a window seat while waiting for the captain to switch on the Fasten Seatbelt sign.
Pelitera has worked at the Austin airport since 1993, when it was at its original location on Manor Road and still went by the name Mueller. (He, along with the rest of the airport, moved to its current location in 1999.) Pelitera had just moved back to Texas after 10 years in the Bay Area, where he received his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, and worked in various capacities as an art handler and consultant. Though his art was shown in several venues in San Francisco, he struggled to find those same types of opportunities in Central Texas.
But then he started noticing art going up in the airport. “I saw these different installations and I was like, who is doing that?” he tells me during a recent phone conversation.
Who was doing that was ABIA’s Program Manager of Art, Music, and Graphics, Cory Hurless. Hurless is, at heart, a curator and educator, connecting local artists and cultural organizations to an international audience, many of whom are rolling madly down the corridor. ABIA has five galleries, each with rotating exhibits; Hurless has named them after different Austin neighborhoods.
When a multi-artist exhibition was cancelled due to COVID last fall, Zilker Gallery, the most capacious art spot of all, became available. Pelitera had only recently made Hurless’ acquaintance, after showing her his catalogue of work as they quickly walked through the airport together.
“She’s busy, and she’s booked way out, but she loved my work,” he recalls. Jerome had hopes of a slot opening up in two year’s time. Two days later, it was time.
“It’s across from Gate 17,” he says of his exhibition. “Right next to the ladies room.”
Pelitera requested to install the show in November, knowing full well that airline travel would plummet after the holidays. This would at least give his work a chance to be seen. Pelitera had already watched numbers dramatically drop off at the beginning of the pandemic, when United flights went from 35 a day down to eight.
“Everybody was really scared, you’re in contact with the public and you’re in contact with everything physically dealing with travel.” Despite wearing a mask and gloves from the get-go, he had COVID by April, one of the few in his crew. Though he wasn’t hospitalized, Jerome was very sick which hit home for his coworkers.
After a long and difficult year, getting this solo show was an unexpected surprise. Like all the galleries at ABIA, Zilker Gallery is a walk-by space with a glass facade. Not a gallery to enter per se, more like a window display. Given its 34-foot length Zilker is often utilized for group exhibitions ranging with as many as 20 artists. Jerome currently has it all to himself.
“Before We Take Off” spans work from over the years. A lot of it is about relationships and alienation, how people interact with people, he says: “It’s kind of a precursor to the pandemic. You can read into it, the alienation of getting COVID and what it’s doing to people.”
Pelitera has observed countless human interactions at the airport over the years. Something as simple as boarding the plane: who gets on first, who gets on last. The pushing and shoving (before social distancing was a thing).
“It’s all about getting the upgrade. People are so excited to sit in First Class, even if it’s a 27-minute trip,” he laughs.
As vaccines continue to slowly roll out, it’s easy to apply this study of human nature to the newest front-of-the-line phenomenon. The airport is a big ball of society, illustrating how we interact at all different levels, Pelitera says. Who is more human than the other?
His portraits certainly convey Camus — a strange foreignness we might recognize in others and within ourselves. Each face is maskless, but even a maskless face can be anonymous. There is only one painting which he made in 2020. “AM Layover,” an abstract piece, feels like a forest one might get lost in forever.
“It’s very textured, it comes out at you when you’re looking into the (gallery) window. It’s not receiving.”
A faceless face in this masked age. Lost in the crowd. Caught in a delay. Waiting.
Despite the dwindling numbers of travelers at the moment, Pelitera’s show has indeed attracted some attention. At least one piece has already sold. And his coworkers were surprised to learn of his artistic pursuits when he’s not directing planes on the tarmac.
I ask Jerome how he found himself in the aviation industry in the first place. His “art gigs,” as he calls them, weren’t enough when it came to raising a family. And working for an airline has one very definite perk for an artist.
“You can go to every museum in the world, see all the art and architecture you want. If there’s an empty seat — you got it.”
“Before We Take Off” runs through May 15 at the Zilker Gallery, in the Barbara Jordan Terminal at the Austin Bergstrom International Airport.