White River Junction artist Benjamin Peberdy doesn’t sign his name to the collages he creates, he brands them with a logo. Peberdy makes art under the appellation Deluxe UnlimitedTM, which he chose because he “thought it sounded nicely sort of self-important, and sort of vague.”
His pseudonym may be intentionally ambiguous, but what Peberdy is making is clear: cleverly composed, witty and often biting collages composed of vintage print advertisements, comic-book text bubbles and other illustrations.
His skewering of commercialism extends beyond the gallery. Each time the 26-year-old sells one of his works, he issues the buyer a copy of his “User Agreement.” It reads in part:
Our Liability: Deluxe UnlimitedTM Art is created to inspire, amuse, horrify, fascinate, perplex and encourage. It is our corporate mission to foster a thoughtful skepticism of normative assumptions and an appreciation for weird, arresting imagery. This is achieved through the recycling and repurposing of trash information that would otherwise accumulate in our culture.
Peberdy says he borrowed the agreement’s language from the “labyrinthine instructions” that accompanied a new credit card. “I like thinking of [art] as a product, something you could use in the home or office,” he says. Plus, he admits, the agreement “seems to be more creative than a thank-you letter.”
Peberdy grew up in tiny Cookville, Vt., about halfway between Barre and Thetford. After a short stint as an English major at the University of Vermont, he got a job in Burlington as a bartender, then picked up some shifts at a sawmill. “Nothing fit,” he says, until 2009, when he started reassembling the images he’d been clipping and collecting for years from magazines and textbooks. “It was a very obsessive-compulsive collection,” he says.
Since then, Peberdy, who is now employed as a dishwasher at White River Junction’s Tip Top Café, has shown his work at the Main Street Museum in WRJ and Johnson’s Vermont Studio Center. His film about a homemade dancing robot won first place at last March’s Green Mountain Film Festival 48-Hour Film Slam. His solo show, “Caution!,” is at Burlington’s Backspace Gallery through the end of May.
A piece in the Backspace show called “Omen” features an illustration of a formally dressed man and woman with dumb smiles plastered across their faces as they walk arm in arm toward a giant red orb. Peberdy says it’s one of his favorites. He clipped the handsome couple from a car ad in a Life magazine from the 1950s or ’60s. “I think they were standing in front of a new Chevy or something,” he recalls. “The people are drawn to be inhumanly happy.”
Peberdy is fascinated by this disingenuousness in ads. “They’re ubiquitous enough that they create this fake consensus,” he says — namely, that buying an item will make consumers content. “Then they’re confused when they’re not happy.”
For his composition, Peberdy ditched the product that the original ad implied would bring smiles to consumers’ faces — the fancy new car. He wanted the couple to be “in the presence of something very sinister, something that didn’t bode well,” he says, the red sphere on a black abyss of a background.
Peberdy doesn’t limit his imagery to ads. He clips text and illustrations from comic books, textbooks, instructional manuals and whatever else he can get his hands on. “I like happy accidents,” he says, noting that he finds source material in free piles, antique stores and yard sales.
Recently, Peberdy found a three-ring binder containing a locksmith’s how-to manual from the ’70s. “It had these great exploded-view diagrams of all these locks and keys,” he says, some of which he has incorporated into his works.
An illustrated guide to handguns inspired one of the most chilling collages in the Backspace show: A vengeful-looking man points a gun directly at the viewer, while a speech bubble beside him reads, “He sent his son Jesus to give you a better life!”
Peberdy found the man’s image in the gun guide. “That guy was a target, designed to look like a generic criminal,” he says. The caption came from a book of Christian comics that Peberdy found just as uncomfortable to read as the gun manual, he says. “It was about a bear walking around and being taught things about Jesus,” he recalls. “It kept talking about how you should be happy because this great man died for you.”
Peberdy assembled the criminal’s image and the Jesus caption on a piece of paper he found mottled with mold. “I loved the way it was stretched out and stained,” he says.
Peberdy doesn’t have a studio, so he works after hours in his living room, where he keeps boxes tucked under a table that hold thousands of clipped images, organized roughly by size. He pays as much attention to frames, which he finds in thrift stores, as to the collages that go in them. He is often drawn to frames that are battered and discolored, their paint chipped and stained. They add another textural dimension to his compositions.
Peberdy’s biggest influences aren’t visual artists, he says, but musical ones — Devo and the sound-collage band Negativland, in particular — which might explain why so many of his pieces have the iconic look of album art. In “Squeeze,” a disembodied hand floats in a stormy sky, squeezing a Coca-Cola cap as blood drips onto the dark landscape below. “If We Live…” features three dinosaur cutouts arranged on a Piet Mondrian-style background of red, gray, yellow and white rectangles. Bold letters above declare, “IF WE LIVE…”
The images are certainly suggestive, but Peberdy distances himself from any explicit message. “Deluxe UnlimitedTM is not liable for any revelations into the Greater Meaning of Art, Culture or Life,” he writes in his user agreement. “Doing so only creates Limitation and Stagnation. We are Cryptic by corporate policy.”
“Caution!” is on view through May 31 at the Backspace Gallery, Burlington.
The original print version of this article was headlined: "A Brand Apart"