New York

Jeff Perrone


Jeff Perrone’s recent works, while not actually paintings, have been in painting format: striped abstractions on canvas, evoking formalist traditions but made eccentrically, in a mix of colored sands and sewn-on found buttons. Earlier on, though, Perrone worked for years in ceramics, to which he has now returned. Once an art critic, he has also returned to the use of language. It would be too much to say that in words he has found his voice—the stripe works were totally articulate—but he has certainly found a way to address political, social, and art-world issues that have clearly been weighing on his mind.

The new works are glazed clay tiles that hang on the wall. Prettily colored, mostly in blue, yellow, and white, the tiles are lined along their longer, vertical sides by rows of semicircles and triangles, a reference to decorative art that Perrone also made in the store-bought moldings that topped his paintinglike works. The spaces between these borders hold inscriptions in small block capitals. Some are quotations gathered from the papers or the Internet; others are the artist’s own remarks. The subjects range from the current style in art fairs—MUCH AS SHOPPING MALLS OFFER EVERYTHING FROM CAFES TO THEATERS TO KEEP PEOPLE SHOPPING, THE MIAMI ART FAIR HAS A SPA WHERE THE ART-WEARY CAN DISAPPEAR FOR A MASSAGE, OR A MANICURE, OR EVEN A NAP—to the aggressive fantasies of the Bush people: IF WE JUST WAGE TOTAL WAR, OUR CHILDREN WILL SING GREAT SONGS ABOUT US YEARS FROM NOW.—RICHARD PERLE. To which Perrone adds the caustic retort, AMPUTATIONS ARE FOREVER.

Perrone has used tiles before, but mostly in ways that talk more about art than about world affairs. An understanding of painting—and particularly formalist painting, its achievements and limitations—is basic to his practice; both his ceramics and his works on canvas can be seen as ways of making paintings without painting, whether by using other materials or by fusing formalism with visual genres, from everywhere in history, that its dogma disowned. Those strictures would certainly also apply to the political and social observations in the new work—which, however, feel more like what Perrone wanted to say than like point-scoring about earlier art’s failings. A formal vocabulary developed out of ideas on aesthetics has reacted to the pressure of the world.

The appealing format of these works rubs in complicated ways against the talk it showcases. Part of the complication comes from the sequencing of the letters, which is wildly variant: horizontal, vertical, closely spaced, far apart, here in response to verbal meaning (a phrase using the word global, for example, is written in a circle), there answering more to visual structure than to content, and certainly not to the left-right flow of text. The ends of lines are unreliable guides to the ends of words. In some works white letters among the black ones draw shapes in the overall grid; that shape may be externally imposed—forming a regular triangle in one tile, for example—or may follow the syntax of the written sentence, making visual form emerge randomly from linguistic formula, in the way of Conceptual and process art. The results are acrostic- or puzzlelike arrangements that the reader must decode. Beginning each sentence, you’re not sure whether to read across or down, whether to look for sense or to look for shape; wrong choices lead to gibberish, to a language without words. Perrone’s barbed messages come slowly, and, when they come, surprise given the alluring color and form in which they are clothed. Once found, they easily return to nonverbal, visual experience. Both responsible and angry, Perrone’s work weds politics and aesthetics in an intimate if hardly blissful marriage.

David Frankel