New York

Jeff Perrone

Cavin-Morris

Billed as “First Paintings,” Jeff Perrone’s new works actually combine the glazed ceramic tiles for which he is already known with canvases painted in gouache or with colored sand (the kind that’s sold in pet stores for decorating aquariums). The paintings consist of anywhere from four to twelve segments (only one consists of a single canvas) arrayed in variously dynamic or totemic configurations. Rife with color, pattern, and imagery, they give an immediate feeling of energy and exhilaration that’s hard not to like. There is a wonderful sense of velocity to it all, the feeling that someone’s mind is bouncing insatiably from one distant realm to another. Humor, too, is omnipresent here, from the mock-Maoism of Perrone’s titles to the selection of images (I particularly like the elephant lady modeling her string of pearls in The Struggle of Labor Against Capital, 1991) to their surprising juxtapositions. Come to think of it, aquarium sand as an art medium is pretty funny just as an idea, and becomes all the more so when you see what an oddly seductive surface it produces—like a cross between the velveteen fur of a teddy bear and sugar frosting on a cake, you don’t know whether you should stroke it or eat it.

All the imagery in the paintings appears to derive from particular sources across a vast range of cultures (Japanese, American Indian, French, among others) and media (pottery, miniatures, textiles)—“A FLOWER FROM EVERY MEADOW,” as one gouache painting proclaims. But as the phrase itself suggests, the sensibility at work here sometimes seems more that of a collector and arranger than of a creative artist. It is not just that Perrone has elected to work as a copyist, since his very arrangements are so nimble and inventive. It’s that his way of juxtaposing cultural fragments maintains more a sense of their separateness than of an imaginative crossing or displacement of the borders between them. Because each image is confined to its own square of canvas or earthenware, their contiguity rarely becomes an interpenetration. Perrone claims that “I do not treat the material I copy as readymade,” but the very energy of their juxtaposition works against our being able to see them that way. To the extent that he succeeds in giving us a visual charge out of his syncretic cultural assemblages, we tend to lose sight of the individuality of the parts.

Where Perrone’s derivations become most engaging is where their appearances become most deceptive. One panel, which I guessed might derive from a Philip Taaffe revision of Paul Feeley (Perrone, in his former career as an art critic, wrote ardently in praise of Taaffe), turned out instead to be based on a French textile design from the ’20s. Discovering how wrong I was did more than just remind me that I’m less erudite than I’d like to be; it suggested that there may be no particular reason to care where something comes from as long as it’s putting in a good performance. Perrone’s laudable advocacy of cultural “miscegenation” might be better served by making his citations less recognizable.

Barry Schwabsky