New York

Jeff Perrone, Kill Your Landlord, 2016, mud cloth, buttons, and thread on canvas, 16 × 12".

Jeff Perrone, Kill Your Landlord, 2016, mud cloth, buttons, and thread on canvas, 16 × 12".

Jeff Perrone

A visitor to this show might understandably have come away thinking Jeff Perrone is an angry guy. All of the sixty-odd works exhibited, made over a ten-year span, are based on words, and a lot of those words are in your face—HATE, VILE, FUCK. The earliest pieces here, from 2008, featured one four-letter word each. By the following year, Perrone had broadened both his vocabulary and his syntax, but he’d kept his politics blunt: OVERTHROW NOT OCCUPY, ALL PROPERTY IS THEFT, WITHOUT BOSSES. A work from 2010 is just one word, but that word has six syllables: RADICALIZATION. By 2017, Perrone could combine full sentence structure with a return to basics: GO FUCK YOUR SELF.

So—angry, OK, but the anger stands in counterpoint to the way the art was made and looks. In that Perrone uses foundations of stretched canvas and hangs the rectangular results on the wall, these works derive from painting, but they show no paint: The drawing of the forms, the writing of the letters, is realized instead with carefully sewn-on buttons, applied over intermediary layers of African mud cloth. It is a dottily complicated method: Though Perrone will sometimes mark the space between words with an empty square of cloth, more often he crams the visual field with rows and columns and circles of multicolored, multisize buttons that the viewer must meld into words. Sometimes that’s easy, when the color of a letter’s buttons stands out against the buttons of the ground—blue against white, say. But elsewhere the colors of letter and ground are close hued and tend to blend into one another; or a work includes buttons of so many colors and sizes that it appears first and primarily as a cracked kind of patterning, emerging as writing only after a struggle in the viewer’s eye. Some letters offer opportunities for tricksiness: In a capital E, for example, both the three horizontal bars and the two negative spaces between them may be rendered by straight rows of same-size buttons, producing stripes. Figure and ground have equal visual value, which makes it hard for the figure to be read as such. In Vice, 2008, the title word’s third letter is produced by a circle of same-size turquoise buttons; its interior is a field of smaller, salmon-colored buttons, from which one single sample sticks out on the right, rupturing the circle and turning it into a C.

Before Perrone began his career as an artist, he had a reputation in the 1970s as a critic, one notably connected to the Pattern and Decoration movement of the time. A lot of that movement’s concerns show up in Perrone’s work (high/low, abstract/decorative, traditionally male skills/traditionally female skills, painting/alternatives to painting), along with a busload of painting’s formal issues: flatness/relief, figure/ground, field/edge, colors and their combination and its effects. Between the 1970s and now, Perrone lived through New York’s AIDS crisis, which decimated his community. The same period saw the transformation of the city’s downtown from impoverished-artist friendly to stockbroker friendly. I think these various histories are ingredients in Perrone’s work, informing the directions in which it pulls—its fusion of aggression and formal imagination.

The latter may seem to undercut the former: so much virtuosity, so much loving labor and cerebral and sensual playfulness, has gone into the composition of these pieces that the brutal word or agitprop sentence, whether its decoding is shockingly sudden or painfully slow, has an absurdist, comic quality by comparison. It comes to seem sort of hilarious that an initially abstract arrangement of pearlescent whites, ebony blacks, and glossy reds, all shiny circles and speckles against the mud cloth’s dull but rich reddish brown, should reveal itself as urging us to BOMB MOMA. Perrone’s words and phrases, too, could cumulatively constitute a persona at a distance from the man himself, or their vernacular currency could be an intellectual interest of his. And yet, undeniably, a part of the pleasure of this work is the feeling that an artist, under the shield of an elaborate and intricate formal exercise but also in plain sight, is telling us exactly what he thinks.