IT’S ONLY ART: JOHN PERREAULT AT MARQUEE PROJECTS
by Daniel Rothbart
John Perreault discussed the terms for his eponymous museum in a 2012 essay. Perreault had been unnerved by a recent visit to the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver where he encountered noisy children, jewelry-clad matrons, and a gift shop that served up Clifford Still jigsaw puzzles among other souvenirs. The John Perreault museum must continually exhibit unsold works of John Perreault, he insisted. Work by artists he had written about as an art critic could be exhibited, but dance or music concerts, docents, gallery lectures, perfume, and colorful clothing would all be forbidden. Further conditions were enumerated at length.
The reason for Perreault’s journey to Colorado, however, was primarily to hang his own drawings. Naropa University in Boulder was hosting an exhibition titled Mark Van Wagner and John Perreault: Drawing From Sand. Perreault met Van Wagner online as it became apparent that both artists were developing bodies of work that incorporated sand as a drawing material. They struck up a friendship and developed a joint exhibition which opened at the Kauai Museum in Hawaii and then traveled to Naropa University. After the project, Mark Van Wagner and his wife Tonja Pulfer moved to Bellport, New York, to be closer to John Perreault and his husband, Jeff Weinstein. Their dialogue and friendship would continue until Perreault’s death in 2015.
Now, two years after the artist’s passing, a temporary John Perreault Museum has opened its doors in Bellport. Curated by Mark Van Wagner and Beverly Allan, It’s Only Art represents an intimate survey of John Perreault’s studio production. Though not presented in New York City, one of the many conditions for Perreault’s museum, much of the work was actually created in the artist’s Bellport home studio. Toothpaste paintings, mended stones, collaborative performance work with the author, found and plywood seascapes and OSB drawings grace the walls and floor of Marquee Projects. This rare survey of Perreault’s studio work will reward the attentive visitor. For this occasion, I wish to present three of my essays on John Perreault’s work which may provide additional context for the viewer’s experience.
It’s Only Art, a survey of painting and sculpture by John Perreault curated by Mark Van Wagner and Beverly Alan is on view from June 23 through July 16, 2017 at Marquee Projects, 14 Bellport Lane, Bellport, New York.
JOHN PERREAULT: PROTESTS AND BEAUTY
Honoré de Balzac poisoned his body with demitasse after nocturnal demitasse of coffee while Victor Hugo used coffee infusions to create delicate sepia-tone drawings. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti referred to himself as “the caffeine of Europe,” and now John Perreault explores this earthy stimulant turned art supply. Coffee is the first of three unhealthy materials that Perreault transforms into rich and varied works for his exhibition Protests and Beauty at Gallery 125 in Bellport, New York.
Ordinary coffee inspired these European masters, but Perreault takes inspiration from instant coffee, discovered by inventor and entrepreneur George Constant Louis Washington. Washington lived in nearby Brookhaven Hamlet, in a home now slated for demolition. During a bid to convert the old mansion into a cultural center, Perreault crossed paths with Washington’s story and resolved to employ instant coffee as an art material.
The works feel like action painting, calling to mind Perreault’s Pollock-inspired serpentine meandering lines in toothpaste (another unorthodox art supply). But these paintings reflect such a range of mark making, from strident, aggressive brushwork to subtle gradation, that coffee doesn’t really enter the viewer’s mind. Some images suggest complex networks of roots emanating from a central trunk while calligraphic figuration in other works conveys great energy and vibrancy. Some marks seem crystalline snowflakes (coffee crystals?) and others suggest passing clouds.
Also on view is a series of OSB Drawings or drawings on Oriented Strand Board. OSB, commonly known as chipboard, is a wood composite for construction made from bonding wood chips in formaldehyde-based resins. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, which makes this art material as dangerous as it is unusual. Throwing caution to the winds, Perreault traces selected wafers in the OSB with black ink to throw existing patterns into relief. In so doing, he lends notable aesthetic value to material ordinarily hidden beneath our floors.
Like much of the work in this exhibition OSB Drawings suggest Oriental influences, like abstracted ocean waves or showering rain patterns in a Japanese ukiyo-e print. Six manipulated OSB panels are exhibited as modular floor pieces, aligned straight on the wood flooring of the gallery. As a result, the intricate patterning of the wood grain carries figuration from the coffee paintings off the walls and into the physical space. In a side gallery hang four OSB drawings like leaves of an Eastern lacquered screen.
The artist also exhibits sand paintings, realized with black, petroleum-coated sand from Fire Island. Perreault was first drawn to this adulterated sand because of its distinctive color. A readymade art supply, the sand needn’t be mulled with linseed oil – it comes with its own pungent motor oil. The imagery, sometimes gestural, sometimes soft and nuanced, once again elevates the medium until it disappears, dematerialized by Perreault’s artistry.
Is there a message to be learned here? Perreault’s title for the exhibition suggests a morality play for our times. Were the Nuremberg Rallies, masterfully filmed by Leni Riefenstahl, any less beautiful because they were a gathering of Nazis? Was the burning World Trade Center any less ardent and captivating because thousands of people were trapped inside? Unfortunately, beauty and truth don’t always seem to coexist in this world. Fast food, carcinogens and pollution don’t detract from the beauty and of Perreault’s new work. To my mind, however, there is less dichotomy and more alchemy in Protests and Beauty, Perreault having isolated a highly effective philosopher’s stone in art.
John Perreault’s Protests and Beauty was on view from July 23 – August 7, 2011 at Gallery 125, 125 Main St., Bellport, New York.
© 2011 Daniel Rothbart. All rights reserved. First published in September 2011 in Artery.
THE HIGH PLAINS ALCHEMY OF JOHN PERREAULT
The Southwest is not a place that I associate with the work of John Perreault. A New York City native, Perreault was a pioneer of the Street Works movement of the 1960s, and has since produced a rich and varied body of experimental art while writing poetry, art criticism, and fiction for the past four decades. All the while he has worked in dialogue with New York and its rigor, sophistication, superficial trends, occasional revelations and evolutions. He divides his time between a home / studio on the Lower East Side and his studio in Bellport, Long Island.
Seascapes & Toothpaste Murals
Perreault is currently developing two distinct bodies of work. One consists of found seascapes, which are born out of an intriguing process of appropriation and manipulation. Perreault plies yard sales and second-hand stores for seascapes that emulate surfside sunsets. He then drips Elmer’s Glue onto the surface of the painting in gestural patterns and finally covers the glue with beach sand. The result is a sandy impasto design through which the viewer perceives illusory depth of the seascape. His second body consists of toothpaste murals. Working on walls primed with blue paint, Perreault squeezes toothpaste directly from the tube onto the surface, creating gestural marks inspired by the Drunken Style of Zen calligraphy and a pseudo-Arabic nonsense script that was practiced by Italian ceramists during the Renaissance.
John Perreault’s Family Tree
Perreault’s artistic influences are quite diverse and warrant acknowledgement. Since artists can freely choose their own family, Perreault has selected the following:
Great-Great-Grandfather: John Dee Great-Grandfathers: Alfred Jarry and Arthur Rimbaud Grandfather: Marcel Duchamp Great-Grandmothers: Alice Neel and Beatrice Wood Uncles: John Cage, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Yves Klein, and Joseph Beuys Aunts: Lee Miller, Joan Mitchell, and Jay DeFeo Brothers: Eduardo Costa, Scott Burton, Glen Seator, and Mike Bidlo Sisters: Ana Mendieta, Hannah Weiner, and Beth Ames Swartz.
At an altitude of 5000 feet, Sierra Vista, Arizona, lies only twenty miles north of the Mexican border. It is rough desert country in which Apache leaders Geronimo and Cochise once roamed amongst cactus and mesquite trees as they struggled to fend off Spanish and North American settlers. The American Cavalry prevailed, and Sierra Vista is now adjacent to Fort Huachuca, a Military Intelligence Center which is considered one of the top ten enemy targets in the United States. It is in the unlikely town of Sierra Vista that we find John Perreault’s latest mural.
In the cafeteria of Sierra Vista’s Cochise College, Perreault coated six 5 x 8 foot panels with Delphinium blue flat paint from Martha Stewart’s line of everyday colors. After preparing the panels, Perreault produced tube after tube of Colgate “Total” toothpaste and applied the perfumed pigment directly to the ground. With it he produced an arcane calligraphy of signs that emulates the natural world, suggesting stars, constellations (Arthur Danto once referred to them as “Celestial”) and the play of light on water. Indeed the themes of sea and sky seem to unite Perreault’s seascapes and murals. Perreault’s ancestors hail from the French coastline of Brittany and the artist has a personal connection to seafaring and the mariner’s need to navigate by the stars.
Medieval alchemists sought to transform base, common metals into gold and Perreault’s toothpaste mural takes the humblest materials from consumer culture and recasts them to emulate forms of sea and sky in nature. Alchemists sought to purify matter by combining opposites, like the masculine and feminine principles, which, through their union, could attain potent creative powers. Sea and sky are opposites, which naturally interact through light, cast on water and find communion in rain, which falls during a storm, uniting heaven and earth.
Petroglyphs, Calligraphy, Frescoes & Food
There is an ancient tradition of wall-writing in South Eastern Arizona. In Murray Springs, just outside of Sierra Vista, one finds petroglyphs carved by the Clovis culture who were the earliest known people to have inhabited North America. Perreault’s work has a kindred spirit with some of these ancient works in terms of circular mark-making, but is perhaps closer to painterly traditions of the Renaissance. Toothpaste seems to form a living bond with the fresh blue paint beneath as in the fresco tradition.
Perreault’s mural was conceived for a student cafeteria which raises the issue of food. A favorite subject of petroglyphs are animals associated with the hunt and frescos use egg yolk as a binding agent for the pigment. Each of us temporarily imbibe toothpaste in the morning but it isn’t quite a foodstuff. Toothpaste lies somewhere between medicine and food. It feels artificial and foreign in our mouths and we are never tempted to swallow. Toothpaste remains aloof from us despite its alluring perfumes and colors. Students eating in the Cochise College cafeteria therefore have a sense of otherness and familiarity as they dine alongside the Toothpaste Mural.
In truth, most of the students are unaware that the mural pigment is toothpaste. In Perreault’s hands it is masterfully transformed into transcendent forms. Both celestial and watery, these panels bring new paradigms to the dessert, truly nourishing viewers with stuff devoid of nutritional value: toothpaste.
© 2005 Daniel Rothbart. All rights reserved. First published in NYArts.
JOHN PERREAULT SEASCAPES
John Perreault seascapes capture something very essential about the sea. They are works that embody the quicksilver changes of the ocean, encompassing both its spatial and metaphorical complexity. Through calligraphic marks with sand and binder, painted on found seascapes and plywood panels, Perreault evokes natural rhythms of the tide, brine on the crest of a wave, the play of light on water and the movement of the sea as it covers and depletes the shore. By combining unlikely genres and techniques he attains a gestalt effect which is close to the spirit of the sea.
During a 2003 C-Shack residency in the Provincetown dunes, Perreault began to make paintings with with Elmer’s Glue and sand. Later that year, at a Long Island yard sale, he bought a paint-by-number seascape over which he dripped a pattern of sandy impasto with repetitive circular movements. The results were highly intriguing, and Perreault began to ply yard sales and thrift stores for seascapes. For the most part he selected banal works realized by mediocre painters to brighten up hotel rooms on Long Island Sound.
Perreault would then gather sand. Most often he uses local sands, but recent works have included sand from his travels, including an exotic black sand from Hawaii that once issued from a volcano. By way of his circular patterning, Perreault draws the viewer’s attention from illusionistic deep space of the found painting to these linear marks. But the sandy impasto is more than a line or a pattern, constituting a sculptural presence in the work with corporeal forms and shadows that emerge from the seascape of the ocean ground.
Already in late 1940s, Jackson Pollock was exploring the relationship between his dripping paintings and the sea, alluding to it in the title of his painting Full Fathom Five. But where Pollock implies depth through chromatic diversity and layering, Perreault drips monotone impasto, drawing the viewers perception to patterns, forms, and shadows. Together with the found seascape in the background he orchestrates a dialogue between rolling waves, rocks, beaches, and the sky, with rapidly executed drippings akin in their way to the spray or frothy foam of the ocean that is both wild and uncontrollable. In nature, it is the force of waves that grind stone to sand, creating Perreault’s art material. By combining these elements, Perreault establishes an interesting rapport between reality and illusion.
For other works Perreault selects plywood panels as grounds for his seascape paintings. The panels privilege natural growth rings in the wood. The cross-grain patterns of the plywood at times resemble the concentric circles in a pool of water and at others the complex movements of the ocean waves seen from above. In the plywood seascape series, Perreault uses dark sand from Long Island, which is discolored by past oil spills. The sand tells a story of ecological imbalance.
Plywood like the sand is both natural and artificial, corrupted with resins that bind it together. I recall a boyhood visit to the Weyerhauser lumber mill in Oregon, where I saw logs placed on oversized lathe spindles from which they were shaved into veneer. The weight and substance of the tree was quickly reduced to a flimsy membrane, waiting to be laminated to other veneers to obtain an artificial strength. So plywood, despite the beauty of its grain, represents a violate nature.
Similarly, the black sand of Long Island is intermingled with the oily by-products of consumption and waste. Its black pigment is derived from the local petroleum spills of pleasure boats which, although contained in scope, pollute the ocean, endangering marine life and birds. For Perreault, the use of tainted materials to represent nature effects a certain correction of human transgressions.
Perreault has a longstanding interest in mystical Judaism, feeling a particular affinity with the Luriac creation story of vessels in the Cabala. According to tradition, ten vessels were filled with Divine light. Certain lower vessels were overwhelmed by the luminosity of their contents and broke into pieces. As a result, Divine light was intermingled with kelippot, the potsherds of its vessels, resulting in light bound to shadow. To rectify this problem, God initiated a process of Tikkun, or "correction." Perreault effects such a correction by restoring natural beauty and complexity to wood and sand that have been tainted by the hand of Man.
Another body of work on view consists of "Mended Stones." They are rounded stones, found by Perreault along the seashore, that are broken and glued back together again. Two early conceptual works of the early 1970’s, intended for the garden at Wave Hill, embody Perreault’s complex relationship to nature. One consisted of writing a one-line poem in the grass with lye. Lye would kill the grass in the space of the poem. Perreault also proposed to paint an entire tree, from top to bottom, which again would ultimately have the effect of killing it. Neither piece was ever realized.
The death and rebirth of nature as art in these works reflects the shadow of creativity. Perreault implies that destruction is always present in the act of creation. Indeed, Perreault’s works are much more in keeping with the at times brutal reality of nature than most of the prettified interventions realized by artists for pastoral environments. But Perreault’s transformation of nature, by depleting part of the natural environment, heightens our awareness to what remains present. As in his current seascapes, Perreault establishes a fascinating rapport between abstraction and reality (or its depiction).
Breaking stones may seem like a primal or even primitive gesture, but the tool Perreault is crafting takes hold of our consciousness like a Zen koan. Perreault’s establishment of a duality within these stones clarifies our understanding of pristine nature. Mended stones also speak to a mythic nature with its dualities of masculine or feminine and creation and destruction, which runs like a deep ocean current in the unconscious.
© 2004 Daniel Rothbart. All rights reserved. First published in NYArts.