A folded 1915 road map might seem an unlikely source of inspiration for bold contemporary artwork. But when Peter Charles was searching for a new direction after creating metal sculpture for 30 years, he turned to that modest possession, recognizing the possibilities of folds in art.
“I was struggling to think what I could do to combine a form and an image, to turn a painting into an object, or an object into a painting,” he says. He thought about folding fans, but the shape was not right. “What else is folded with images?” he pondered—then landed on the map.
“When viewers see something not perfectly flat, it becomes enigmatic,” the artist, who is also a teacher, suggests. “They wonder, ‘Why is this folded? What does it do for the work?’ The added dimension makes it more than a picture.”
Realized over more than a decade, the screens and mixed-media pieces based on that idea unfold in an exhibition of Charles’s work at Cross MacKenzie Gallery in Washington, beginning March 2. Abstract and pictorial, personal and global, his designs explore the intrigue of folds, both real and faux.
In “Tangle,” a tall standing screen, curved ivy tendrils interweave with swirling iPod earbuds, which Charles sees as “a new American icon, like Levis and baseball caps.” The massive painted pattern stands out against the subtle backdrop of light-and-dark panels in an imaginary folded screen. On the back, the trompe l’oeil tableau continues more simply: a single cord hangs from a faux screen inside the actual frame. “I’m always trying to play real against illusion,” the artist says.
“Screens are paintings, but objects at the same time,” he continues, while demonstrating how this form evolved from his mixed-media paintings on folded paper. He pinned a painting to the wall; its accordion folds cascaded down in flexible formation. The heavyweight watercolor paper was mounted on fabric to prevent damage from folding and unfolding, a precaution similar to the silk backing that has preserved his vintage map intact.
A related series brings fixed dimension to the wall. Among these paintings on steel, “Lily Pads” has an octagonal shape extending more than four feet high and wide. Its faceted form is intended to convey, “a stylized idea about ripples on the surface of water moving out to the edges,” the artist says. He hand-cut, formed and welded each section from a flat sheet of steel.
All the pieces in this range of recent work started out the same way: with photos. “Lily Pond” began with images Charles took of a koi pond in his garden. “Buddha,” his newest tall screen, developed from photos of 19th-century Japanese woodblocks and prints. These images were printed, torn and arranged in a composition, then photographed again. Charles continued the process—taking photos of his painting-in-progress and digitally adjusting the layout as he went along.
Earlier in his career, Charles focused on metal and wood sculpture. Tall totemic pieces from that creative period stand huddled like slender spirits in his unheated studio, converted long ago from a three-car garage behind his Northwest Washington home. Wiry, fit and wearing fresh sneakers, he bounds up the studio’s spiral stairs to the mezzanine, pointing out experimental mixed-media works over different stages.
Growing up in Washington, Charles attended the United States Capitol Page School and claims the mantle of “the only Capitol page ever to go to art school.” He majored in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, then switched to sculpture and received a master’s degree in fine art from Yale. He has worked as an artist ever since, continuing to teach studio art first at University of Delaware, then at West Virginia University and since 1983, at Georgetown University.
Glancing across the diverse work produced over four decades, Charles identifies a common thread: a synergism between two and three dimensions.
“That’s been my preoccupation. It takes different forms,” he says. “During the time I was making sculpture, I never considered myself only a sculptor. I always continued to paint or do mixed media or drawing. Everything is integrated that way, always intermixed.”
Tina Coplan is a writer in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Peter Charles’s work can be seen at Cross MacKenzie Gallery from March 2 through April 11 at 2026 R Street, NW, Washington, DC; 202-333-7970; crossmackenzie.com. For more information on the artist, visit petercharlesart.com.