Essay: Nature of Things

by Francine Koslow Miller, PhD

Related Exhibition

Nature of Things, 2005, is an eight-part exhibition in which conceptualist Jeff Perrott uses his control of a variety of media and styles to elaborate on the timeless conflict between the actual and the imagined, the banal and the Sublime. Included are both concrete and ghostly anatomical images, hand-drawn and computer-produced numbers, silk-screened stripes configured in minimalist grids on reflective surfaces , and a monumental flowing poured acrylic painting on Plexiglas. Perrott further convolutes the literal and the metaphoric in a projected silent digital video work which transforms the artist’s road travels into a continuous flow of colors, forms and patterns. Moving from the visible to the invisible, an audio work featuring electronic sounds, field recordings, a looping narrative parable, and aleatoric piano riffs completes the ensemble of artistic elements. Exhibited at the Barbara Krakow Gallery in Fall 2005, The Nature of Things is an unconventional form of Vanitas, a Latin word for vanity, which traditionally refers to a type of still-life that symbolizes the brevity of human life and the inevitability of death. This theme is especially apparent in 17th century Dutch still-lifes, with their reflective surfaces, fragile flowers, timepieces, snuffed candles, and skulls.

According to Perrot, “these eight works are like objects in a traditional Vanitas still-life, each one symbolizing and realizing in varying ways, notions of abundance wrought by desire, undercut by the consciousness of ephemeral, empty existence and death.” 

Vanitas, 2004-5, is also the name of a colossal installation of 48 rectangular striped mirrored panels, in five two-color versions, which creates ever-changing reflections of hue  and minimalist form.   Perrott has silk-screened a pair of colors on each 17” x 30” panel directly atop one another, allowing equivalent areas of mirror to penetrate the surface. Like an op-art sculpture, the colors of the stripes change as the viewer travels across the installation. Straight-on, the top layers of stripes are in view; when one moves, the mirror reflects only the bottom color. The mirrored stripes simultaneously reflect the image of the beholder, in effect forcing a negotiation between the immediate, ever-changing reflection of the gallery environment, on the one hand, and the formal rigidity of the stripe and the grid, on the other.

Further contemplating the ephemeral nature of individual existence, Perrott created Torso, 2005, a carefully rendered image of a human skeleton, from the upper spine to the pelvis, based on a student anatomy book illustration.  Choosing clear varnish on transparent Plexiglas as his media, the skeletal torso is only visible when external light cast upon it creates a shadow on the white wall upon which it is mounted.  This haunting experience of human fragility is balanced and undercut by the ready-made absurdity of Souvenir, 2005. The precious bronze metal cast made from routine dental impressions of the artist’s teeth, is a quasi-self portrait and memento mori.  In these two works, says Perrott, “I play the poles of fear and acceptance, of tragedy and absurdity, and of heaviness and lightness, characteristic of literary treatments of vita brevis.”

In addition to his intellectual fascination with the physical, ephemeral and philosophic nature of being, Perrott has long been involved with systemic painting. Wallcovering, 2005, a removable and adjustable arrangement of manic patterns of four-color ink-jet numbers on adhesive vinyl, harkens back, with irony, to his earlier system based numeric paintings made from 1992-1999. Perrott's signature numeric object language had relied on stencils to create layered patterns on wood boxes and grids based on his own compulsive mathematically formulated systems. By 2005, however, the placements and interaction of the 144 computer-designed numbers in each 48” x 48” repeating pattern of Wallcovering are no longer based on any rigid order, but instead on chance and intuition. Still, within each adhesive square, a blank central form appears. Somewhat like a Greek cross, a rose-window like center is created by the merging of four “zeroes” -- a result of the computer-based design process Perrott has employed, which he explains is, “a hint of an underlying, equally arbitrary process of design symmetry.” Here, the temporary quality of his materials, the ordinariness of art-as-wallpaper, and the arbitrariness of numbers and process merge in an undifferentiated mandalic field that returns Perrott’s numerals to basic shapes and colors.  This uncanny return extends to Fenway 9, 2005. Balancing  the complex epistemology of Wallcovering with the banality of real life labor, this simple black and white framed drawing of the number “nine” is hung atop the vinyl wall piece. Tipping its hat to Perrott’s part-time day job painting numbers at Fenway Park, the work is part of a series of drawings in which the artist encounters, and records everyday moments which become eerie to him. “I had painted this number “nine” over and over again so many times,”   Perrott explained, “that it suddenly became something else, a kind of strange creature, a simple curved shape, and a goofy figure.  I tried to draw what it became

For an artist so long caught up in rigid systems, this type of intuitive, momentary process signals liberation – and his poured acrylic paint works reflect more freedom in his paint use.  Painting, 2005, was created by pouring a mixture of pure pigment and polymer from squeeze bottles onto a black 72” x 72” x 4 ½” Plexiglas box.  The resulting rivulets of color are the consequence of carefully controlled manipulation of the acrylic paints, the artist’s negotiation with the accidental forces at work in the paint itself.   In fact, the resulting “natural” patterns are the ‘nature’ of the paint itself, hence the straightforward title and approach.  The shiny flat seamless surface and object-like quality of Painting suggest that this work is hardly an Abstract Expressionist example of cathartic mark-making, but more related to the primary structures of Ellsworth Kelly, and a deliberate contemplation of the nature of painting.

Perrott’s move from rigid system based thinking to exploring the interplay of concept and intuition underscores his continual challenge to himself to move past the familiar impulses of his art. His new work in video and sound move in the direction of further abstraction and spontaneous creativity. Gone, 2005, made with a cheap hand-held video recorder, morphs tedious car trips back and forth between New York and Boston into a fluid array of colors, shapes, an occasional tree, tires seen through a windshield:  “lights, pedestrians, everything – the familiarity of a grooved, well-worn trip transformed into movement itself, that nature of travel itself.” The undifferentiated flow of the work describes not only the momentary, shifting quality of travel, but points again to the fleeting, ever-changing quality of life.  As in Fenway 9,  Perrot puts his own life under scrutiny, and opens it up to transformation.  Likewise,  The Law of Life, 2005, a 12 track stereo sound work, camouflages the story of a young boy’s Darwinian encounter with a trapped crocodile (as told by the late Indian spiritual teacher Anthony DeMello), among myriad field recordings from the artist’s life, chance electronic sounds, and more choreographed instrumentations. Like Gone, the Law of Life compresses and transforms the everyday in an effort to its primary momentary quality.  The embedded, haunting story, describing the arbitrary nature of things in the jungle, punctuates such contemplation, with a darker, open-ended ellipse: “…the world is not problematic; you are the problem.”

Like one of his philosopher heroes, Henri Bergson (1859-1941), Perrott understands that it is intuition, the direct apprehension of process, which reveals the real world.   Perrott accepts difference, movement, and change in an approach that strives to embrace the fleeting nature of things, making it visible and experiential for us in the context of this grand Vanitas.

Francine Koslow Miller

Read More Writings by/on Jeff Perrott