Essay: Empty Canvas

by Francine Koslow Miller, PhD

Related Exhibition

One of the most important philosophical insights in Buddhism comes from what is known as the theory of emptiness. At its heart is the deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own experience in it, and the way things actually are….In the theory of emptiness, everything is argued as merely being composed of dependently related events; of continuously interacting phenomena with no fixed, immutable essence, which are themselves in dynamic and changing relations. 

The Dalai Lama, 2005

For his 2006 exhibition at Morgan Lehman Gallery, La Vie Éternelle, Jeff Perrott  (and collaborating artist Douglas Weathersby) produced a video and sculpture installation called ‘End’ (2006) documenting the transformation of a ton of Perrott’s earlier paintings on wood and plastic into sawdust by loading them into an industrial chipper.

Reflecting on that extreme cathartic process of transforming his own paintings, Perrott explained that the Buddhist concept of ‘emptiness’—which refers to the immutability and impermanence of physical things—not only drove the End project, but also guided the creation of his new inkjet on canvas works based on personal digital photographs as well as images drawn from the artist’s everyday Internet research. According to the artist:

I started out wanting to break apart, transform, or break down into constituent parts the images (photos) using Photoshop, the way I had physically broken apart the paintings in the ‘End’ project.

Empty Canvas is the well-chosen title for Perrott’s new exhibition of over a dozen variously scaled and abstracted images, reduced first to constituent pieces of digital information (pixels), then rebuilt as abstracted color halftones, and finally printed onto canvas mounted on wood panels.  But here’s where the similarity to End leaves off: whereas the undifferentiated mulch of End bore no trace of the source objects in that work, the end objects in Empty Canvas bear the clear trace of the original photographic image.  Close inspection of the surface yields an intensely optical abstract experience, virtually divorced from the photographic source, while distant viewing, strangely, yields photographic detail.  Viewers’ modulation of these two extremes in the physical space gives the work its transformative power, offering an uncanny sense of the emptiness Perrott is calling forth.  

At first glance, the titular work Empty Canvas (2009) appears as a flattened grid of variously sized circles that diminish in scale along the edge. But when viewed from a certain distance, an ethereal rendition of a simple white stretched canvas hung on a white wall comes into view. The simple self-reference of the work sets up an endless mirroring of the object that points to fundamental questions of the nature of the painting.  It further bears out the existential, archetypical, heavy burden of facing the white canvas in the studio.  And here’s where Perrott has fun, for he’s lightened and undercut that burden by literally taking the brush out of his own hand. Rather than engage another new painting strategy, he strips his own painting practice down and takes a different approach, figuring that practice through digital photography, imaging, and printing technology, to offer a critical simulation of painting:

I turned the lens on painting, and my painting and painting life in particular. I tend to see everything through that lens anyway, so why not take a look? But just like art is not a special case of life, so painting isn’t a special case of art. Digital image making is a lot like working with painting. I’m working with color, I’m making decisions. I erase something, change the colors slightly then change it back. To me, using electronic means has the same kind of give and take that painting does.

Perrott is essentially re-formulating Pointillism and the basic format and four process colors of Ben Day dot printing, a hallmark of 1960s painting and printmaking. Employing component black, red, yellow, green and blue circles derived from his color separation treatment, he eliminates illusionist shadows, dismantling the source image into primary, primal atoms, a straight grid separation between dark and light, negative and positive space.  But here’s the catch: this distillation into pure value and hue is then ‘rebuilt’ into the source image under the viewer’s gaze, which finds the middle values and mixtures of color for itself, filling in the empty spaces between primaries and extreme values.  This process is assisted by the careful choice of media: using a UV-curable inkjet flatbed printer to output sensuous saturated color on pre-primed artist’s weight canvas stretched on birch panels, Perrott’s new prints are uncanny replicas of meticulous, hard-edged acrylics on canvas: they absorb inspection of their surfaces, returning uncanny details of their source images, while never revealing them entirely.

Aside from intentional art historical references to Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White (1918), Roy Lichtenstein’s 1960s’ Pop Stretcher Frame series, and Bridgett Riley’s black and white Op Art canvases, Perrott meditates on the ephemeral nature of the common and familiar things that surround him and preoccupy him. For the artist, the flattened dot matrix of Empty Canvas (2009) challenges and critiques the ‘objecthood’ and permanence of art by leaving it in a continually changing mode—between abstraction and representation, between here and there, between something and nothing:

Yes, I am making prints—objects that seem to have permanence, but the image structure and the nature of their visual/physical experience challenges their objecthood. The language that I am using to make up the image is just ones and zeroes. There’s nothing concrete or object-like about that. It is just data in the purest sense. And the changing nature of the image – between objective and nonobjective, there and not there, extends that language into the physical space.

Studio (Chair)  (2009) thematically reiterates the dilemma of the solitary artist in the studio, faced with the burden of his own history and the history of art.  Hidden in the center of a rainbow of ethereal circles, one discerns the profile of a simple black armchair—the artist’s chair.  This symbolic stand-in for the artist, which, according to Perrott, “reminded one of my friends of Andy Warhol’s Electric Chairs,” faces an earlier painted canvas representing the number ‘9’; behind the chair is an earlier mural-scaled acrylic abstraction.  The artist’s works seem to be the torturer-interrogators in this spectacle, but the heaviness of the scene is relieved by the ecstatic figuration, the vibrant contrast and saturated color.   Likewise, Palette (2009), sourced in an extreme close-up of Perrott’s own painting palette, covered with thick globs of medium, a can of turpentine and paint tubes, has been digitally transformed into an almost totally abstract matrix of gorgeous vibrating color dots, lightened and lifted from its own messy burden.

Perrott is as concerned with scientific research and art history as he is with his own daily life in the studio.  He is particularly inspired by the innovations made by the Old Masters.. Caravaggio I, (2009) and Caravaggio II, (2009) are details of the gesticulating hands of two holy men in Caravaggio’s baroque masterpiece, The Supper at Emmaus (1601, National Gallery, London). The emotionally and physically charged painting depicts the moment when a resurrected beardless Christ reveals himself at dinner table to some of his astonished disciples, (Gospel of Luke 24: 30-31). Caravaggio I takes its form from the gesticulating left hand of the disciple thought to be Luke, in the masterly foreshortening of an arm that appears to reach beyond the picture plane. Perrott carefully crops Luke’s arm to include a bit of what exists in the source as his rustic tousled shirtsleeve.  Mirroring the disciple's hand, Caravaggio II focuses on a detail of the right hand of Christ as he blesses the meal, his companions, and connects with the viewer in an example of the sublime interrupting daily routine.  As the artist notes, “It takes a great hand to paint a great hand…” —another ironic reflection on the transformation of the nature of the hand in art as it relates to his own digital practice.  In addition, Perrott’s careful crop of Christ’s hand reveals a hidden chalice shape defined by the light and shadow between Caravaggio’s Christ and a second capped disciple—a painter’s trick employed carefully by Caravaggio to suggest, perhaps, Christ’s spiritual offer to the viewer or patron.  When digitally treated by Perrott this ‘shadow-chalice’ becomes even more suggestive of the holy offering.

Perhaps an inner search for the miraculous guided the creation of Stars (2009), a gorgeous pattern of grids of jewel-like color and haloed orbs emerging from static black space. As with the other works, at a certain distance, the viewer fills in the gaps and sees the subject: here, stars, astral bodies, and evanescent gases emanate from the flat plain printed abstract grid. The source for Stars, high-powered telescopic images of the farthest reaches of the universe made by the Deep Field Hubble telescope, was discovered by the artist on NASA’s website. “These are images of the most remote and distant things we can capture from where we are right now—pictures of stars, planets, gases, astral formations that take us way beyond what we can see with our own eyes,” Perrott reflects, as he muses on the way that his images “are there and not there at the same time, abstract, minimal, ordinary and real.”  He revels in the viewer’s need to gain distance from Stars “..and then concentrate—meditate—to really see them.”  And what do we see?  A digital image of a digital image showing shadows of light mined at the outer edge of what we can ‘see’ with technology.  The sheer magnitude and awe of the light years of distance and expanse of space covered, though, is brought back to earth by a simple visual pun – for the ‘Stars’ Perrott refers to are not just the ones out there, but the ones formed by his treatment’s simple interlocking grid of white and black.

Equally important in Perrott’s Empty Canvas series is the everyday subject matter of his life outside the studio; he refers to an archive of personal snapshots in a number of new works. Ambiguous images of his wife Alex walking down stairs, Alex (Nude), (2009) seated poolside Alex (Poolside) (2009), or reclining in a lounge chair Alex (Reclining) (2009) are treated with the same awe as a Caravaggio painting, and are intended to enter into artistic and critical dialogue with iconic compositions by Marcel Duchamp (Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912-13) or David Hockney’s Swimming Pools. According to Perrott, 

I am using art and my everyday life interchangeably as a colloquial subject, not a special subject—for me there is no hard boundary, even when making objects called 'art'.  These objects and the experience of them are just as impermanent as the passing moments watching my infant daughter swinging in her rocker. What’s interesting to me is when life imitates art, not the other way around.  A shapshot of Alex reclining in an armchair is a crucifixion; sitting by the pool, she becomes a ‘Pieta’. Quotidien and iconic cross into each other effortlessly. 

The exaggeratedly large red, blue, yellow and black circles in Double Portrait (2009) may resemble a group of upside-down Legos, but it also captures the essence of relationship—here sourced in a simple snapshot of Perrott’s parents.  Although the features are illegible, the iconic contour of relationship remains. Here the fractured quality of the image serves two purposes, for while creating an interlocking form that unites the figures with each other, it also atomizes them into the undifferentiated grid enveloping figure, ground, and canvas. 

There is a new lightness of being in Perrott’s Empty Canvas series.  The artist has added a sugary layer to his signature nostalgic Vanitas  preoccupation: he has smeared on that vita brevis meditation a kind of ecstatic icing, tasted in the sheer beauty and visual buzz of these images, and in the generosity of changing optical pleasures they afford the viewer as one approaches and recedes from their surfaces.  The best example may be the simplest and most bucolic of these arresting images: Cow (2009), is a delectably kitschy image of a cow standing plainly in a field, dappled with perfect grids of oversized, breast-like brightly colored circles. A nod to Warhol, perhaps, or another facet of the artist’s everyday (he snapped the source image on his in-laws’ farm in Northern France), this cow pairs with the everyday with the extraordinary quality of the visual experience. While this artist continues to consciously flow into new approaches, media, and techniques, what we witness in Cow—and all the Empty Canvas works—is a career long love of abstraction, coupled with a deep respect for and embrace of the transformational potential of visual experience. Part of Perrott’s generosity is the choice he affords us: to look at the whole image, to escape into the abstraction of its parts, or to share in its immutable ever changing emptiness.

Francine Koslow Miller

Read More Writings by/on Jeff Perrott