View of “José Santiago Pérez,” 2020.

View of “José Santiago Pérez,” 2020.

José Santiago Pérez

One of the most common and simple of functional objects, the basket offers a gathering. Its usefulness relies on its ability to keep its contents together. José Santiago Pérez’s compact sculptures of this form appear to have unraveled and ruptured. They seem able to hold nothing. The coiled fiber basket has been an ongoing concern for Pérez, who sees it as a repository of millennia-old traditions and as an ongoing but often overlooked contemporary craft practice. Historically, its fabrication has involved wrapping long grasses and rushes into spirals, layers of which are bound together to progressively build a spherical volume. Pérez adopts this process but swaps out plants for plastics, which, like baskets, are frequently disregarded and considered cheap or mundane. Yet plastic, too, has ancient roots, given the subterranean materials, such as crude oil, from which it can be made.

Each compact structure in Pérez’s exhibition at Roman Susan Art Foundation was fashioned from a single plastic coil the artist made by wrapping blades of thin clear-plastic sheeting around a core of multiple lengths of candy-colored plastic lacing—the cliché summer camp material of braided lanyards. The wrapping is airtight, obsessive, and determined. Still, along the lengths of the coil, the laces occasionally herniate irruptions or run bare of their protective layers. And at the terminal points of each coil, the colorful phloem bursts out as wily tendrils reaching and spreading. The resulting volumes are organic and idiosyncratic, as each coil has also been looped, bent over backward, and twisted around itself. To hold together these open tumbleweed shapes, Pérez has periodically bound and bent the lengths. The basket form’s normally unseen interior, here refusing to be contained or to make a container, unfolds as a miniature drama.

And yet, because his results are humble in scale (all of the works can be held in one palm or two), all of Pérez’s care and patience can at first be overlooked; those who have never attempted such precise manual techniques can treat a basket as a simple, self-evident, merely useful thing. To counterbalance this effect, Pérez installed the sculptures on a large, unwieldy system of three stacked, interlocking table-like pedestals, each measuring roughly five to six feet high. The taller pedestals hovered over the shorter ones, placed at right angles beneath them, evoking the tangles of his sculptures. On the one hand, this arrangement was distracting, but it was effective in that it demanded a different level of attention to the sculptures.

The artist calls his afunctional baskets “Palacios (fantasy structures),” 2019–, and this metaphor telescopes the handheld scale of these works to the architectural. Their tangled lines and twisted paths map out memory palaces, imaginary structures for saving and ordering recollections. Memory palaces hold the past but are directed to the future, and Pérez’s “Palacios” operate similarly: He sees his work with basketry as a means of addressing his intersecting commitments to familial bonds, his Salvadoran heritage, and forms of desire that, like his rebellious colored strands, exceed those traditions. The artist has remarked that he is “interested in the naughty potential of knotting and in drawing out the queer content in the language of coiled basketry,” and it is in those moments of the coils’ collisions and fusions that new relations are proposed. Only by flouting expectations does each basket become unruly and unique. These are queer baskets, vain containers, and pervious vessels. Their afunctionality signals both the impermanence of memory and the new possibilities that might burst forth when a traditional form is looked at awry and anew.