The small figures stared silently from the walls and floor of Sibylle Peretti's studio. An antique, once-elegant, now-dilapidated and ghostly space, it was a perfect place for her to ready her children for the world beyond. But unlike the boisterous kids of parks and playgrounds, these children are quiet, even pensive, qualities that reflect their make-up as much as their demeanor. Etched, drawn or cast from bronze, paper or glass, they are as whimsical as dreams made visible.
The product of a German-New Orleanian with a unique point of view, the little figures are as ethereal as they are intriguing. We live at a time when kids are expected to be energetically outgoing, not pensively reflective, and silence can be intimidating. "These children, they know more than us," explains Peretti in a softly emphatic accent from across the Rhine. "They represent innocence, but also a kind of knowing, yet they cannot really say what they know," she continues, gesturing to the head of a boy with a face like a startled angel. "So they find comfort in silence; they speak their own wordless language."
Moved by homelessness and autism, and haunted by the faces of the children she encountered in old photos illustrating antique German medical books, Peretti was inspired to capture the essence of what she saw in two and three dimensions. Struck not so much by their physical circumstances as by the profoundly reflective and dreamy expressions on their faces, she says she wanted to "take them out of their clinical context and give them more dignity. Children are prisoners, in the sense that they don't have a say in things, but they also carry our hopes. Despite their helplessness, they also have a kind of vision and strength."
Her work explores this other, more obscure side of childhood, a complex, contemplative world of dreams, imaginings and gestures. The results are sometimes eerily beautiful, sometimes strange or even disturbing, but always unusual, to say the least. Unlike many other artists, Peretti, who had two previous shows at Sylvia Schmidt Gallery in the past three years, does not need to worry about her work being mistaken for anyone else's. Her expressionist mix of beauty, sadness and strangeness is uniquely her own, though it has parallels with the bittersweet lyricism of Gustav Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder," and certain poems by Mallarme or Poe.
In a series of untitled images on glass panels (all of her work is untitled), her youthful figures appear amid assorted flora and fauna, like mythic beings beneath the sea, or in the mists of enchanted glades with magical birds or flowers. These fairytale qualities set up a curious tension with the stark realism of their origins that may not be obvious at first. It's a subtly pervasive undercurrent that demands an unusual degree of receptivity to the unfamiliar on the part of the viewer.
That sense of a magical kingdom beneath the sea is all the more evident in some of the free-standing glass pieces in which images of elfin-like figures or cast glass heads appear under clear crystal domes like bell jars. Some seem buoyed upward by bubbles amid coral-like formations, as other, more earthbound figures appear in terrarium-like settings. Some even suggest creatures conjured in the laboratories of medieval alchemists. Throughout all this, clear glass spheres are a frequent motif, sometimes appearing as oversized bubbles at the lips of the little figures. Are they spit bubbles or unspoken thoughts? That is for the viewer to decide, but given Peretti's interest in the silent communication of children, the latter seems a likely answer.
Obviously, this has nothing to do with the Leave It to Beaver view of childhood, and it's pretty unfamiliar turf even for most art buffs. So who is this woman, anyway? A slender, soft-spoken, thirtysomething brunette, Sibylle Peretti grew up near Cologne, Germany, where she still maintains an apartment. Although her work is quite unusual, her presence is so pleasantly unassuming and low key that she could probably blend in almost anywhere without anyone having any idea who she was, what she did, or what unlikely visions might be stirring in her head. Yet she and her partner, sculptor Stephen Paul Day, live a lifestyle that others might envy, with summers spent teaching at the Bildwerk art school in Bavaria's Black Forest region, and the rest of the year spent here in New Orleans, where they share a rustic studio in lower Faubourg Marigny.
Even so, it is the innocents of the world that are her focus, the quietly gentle children and animals seen here, creatures she says "are all connected to each other and communicate in a wordless expression more mystical than any verbal language. Some recur over and over, especially one girl, and you get the idea that they move around and are alive. Then you can identify with this girl, and the idea that she is a real character."