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Luciano Perna. Photo: Darcy Huebler.
Luciano Perna. Photo: Darcy Huebler.

Luciano Perna (1958–2021)

Conceptual artist Luciano Perna, known for his typically absurd Arte Povera–influenced found-object sculptures and his quietly evocative photographs, died December 28 in Los Angeles of a heart attack at the age of sixty-three. The news was confirmed to the Los Angeles Times by the artist’s wife, Darcy Huebler. His work across mediums including painting, photography, sculpture, and installation defied categorization, his oeuvre variously described as Constructivist, Duchampian, Futurist, and Surrealist. In works ranging from a self-portrait comprising an extreme close-up of a strand of spaghetti enlarged to mirror his own height to “Paintings by the Pound,” a group of abstract paintings in which he secreted small weights and charged buyers accordingly, he continually questioned the strictures surrounding the making of art and its reception.

Perna was born in Naples in 1958. Following the death of both his parents within months of each other, he moved to Caracas, Venezuela, at the age of sixteen to live with his older half brother. There he continued the practice of photography, which he had adopted at the age of fourteen under the tutelage of his father, an amateur photographer. After brief stints as an archivist at the National Library of Venezuela and as a photographer in a commercial portrait studio, he moved to Los Angeles and enrolled at CalArts at the age of twenty-one. He went on to earn both his bachelor’s and his master’s degrees in photography there, studying under John Baldessari, Judy Fiskin, Barbara Kruger, and Douglas Huebler (the father of his future wife).

Working with humble found objects, Perna frequently composed objects perceived as masculine (motorcycles, race cars) from those seen as feminine or domestic (pots, pans, cups, backyard grills). Of particular note is his Easy Rider of 1993, which replicates the iconic chopper ridden by Peter Fonda in the titular 1969 film, with a pair of aluminum crutches forming the bike’s extended front fork. Perna had never seen the movie, which came out when he was eleven and living in Naples. “I just saw the pictures, and I imagined what was in the film,” he told Bomb’s David Pagel the year he made the work.

Though he experimented with various mediums during the course of his career—“What I want to do is addressed best in that strange, un-picturable space that resists definition,” he told Pagel—photography remained a constant. During the Covid-19 lockdown, Perna began photographing plants and other objects in his home against seemingly depthless black backgrounds, the results both luminous and elegiac. He posted his efforts daily to his social media accounts, where they caught the attention of many who had previously been unfamiliar with his work. Among them was critic Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, who expanded on these works in the pages of Artforum in autumn 2020.

An artist utterly unknown to me seemed to suspend his floral semaphores between alarm and seduction. Alarm, since Perna’s random specimens were apparently not singled out just by an anxiety over the increasingly precarious ecology of plants, threatened with extinction by perpetually diversified political and economic practices of chemical and climatic destruction, but also by the sense of an aggravated actuality imagining the dangers to life in general under the pandemic. Seduction, since these images not only mobilized flora’s momentous transhistorical attractions, but also deployed nature morte’s age-old meditative powers to stall the paradoxical precipitation of time under the pandemic’s stultifying evacuation of most of the structured functions from everyday life.

Ink-jet prints of these works were displayed at Marian Goodman Librairie in Paris in 2021. Perna exhibited widely at galleries around the world and at museums including the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, the Laguna Art Museum, and the the Santa Monica Museum of Art, all in California; the List Visual Art Center at MIT, Dia Art Foundation, New York; and the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. His work is held in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Museum of Fine Arts, La Chaux-des-Fonds, Switzerland.