Nashville Painter James Perrin Takes Art History to Walmart
by Joe Nolan
James Perrin isn’t new to Nashville, but if this is the first you’ve heard of the painter, you’re sure to be hearing a whole lot more. Perrin recently showed an impressive exhibition of his latest work at 40AU. He handpicked the venue for September’s First Saturday opening, and the perfect marriage between the work and the space spoke volumes about how well Perrin understands his canvases. Almost simultaneously, Perrin had his first museum-level show when a handful of his works opened at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts as part of their Abstractometry exhibit, which runs through February 2, 2014.
Perrin may well be Nashville’s art scene’s man of the moment, but his work is anything but trendy. Perrin combines figures, realism, and abstraction with an intense, everything-all-at-once sensibility that hides its debts to the history of painting in plain sight. Perrin’s recent success and exposure show that he’s an artist that knows where he’s going, but, more important, he’s also an artist who knows what’s come before.
Considering Perrin’s earlier work—and his earlier influences—I keep returning to the painting Expulsion from the Garden. Many of Perrin’s past and current paintings include glowing white curls of paint issuing tiny whip-like lines. Usually these are used as expressive motifs that often tie the background and foreground of a work together. In Expulsion, looping arcs of the stuff careen across the surface of the painting, practically becoming its subject. Above the lightning-colored swirls, a distorted cow skull pops in and out of view. Perrin often abstracts images using photo software before painting the results into his scenes. I doubt that Perrin has been compared to Georgia O’Keeffe very often, but I get the feeling that—sans the distortion—the bones would look a lot like one of O’Keeffe’s horse heads. Add to that the desert-like feel of many of Perrin’s background landscapes, and this idea is a compelling one. However, the distorted skull may ultimately owe more to Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors than O’Keeffe’s flower-festooned skulls.
Beneath the skull, a figure or figures are almost completely obscured by Perrin’s energized lines. Outlines form the figures of a man and what may be a woman. These are the Biblical Adam and Eve being forced from their garden—the swirling white lines are revealed to be the flaming sword of the cherubim that guard the Tree of Life.
However, Perrin’s title has as much to do with art as it does the Bible. Turns on the phrase “expulsion from the Garden of Eden” are common titles for paintings of the end of paradise—the famous fresco by Masaccio immediately leaps to mind. Though it may seem an odd comparison, for me Perrin’s take is much more like that of Peter Paul Rubens with his violent, grasping Death and shunning angel. Rubens’ swirling lines emphasize the terror of a scene that’s filled with grinding grimaces and desperate gestures. Perrin’s and Rubens’ images don’t really look alike, but their overall effects are strikingly similar.
At first glance, Perrin’s newest paintings seem to do away with figures entirely. However, closer inspection reveals that the artist’s recent shows represent a continuing evolution for the painter rather than a complete break.
Perrin’s latest large, abstract canvases are as purposefully busy as ever. In M3-9D13 Perrin lifts an angel from an old-master painting and manipulates it with photo software before painting that image onto his canvas in the midst of a wild cacophony of sparking, electrified colors. The overall effect of these larger pieces is intense to say the least, and gallery-goers at Perrin’s First Saturday opening insisted that the canvases were emitting buzzing and crackling sounds. Perrin’s largest canvas at the Frist show presents a figure abstracted into a star-like design that curator Mark Scala equates with a rethinking of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, embodying “the energy arising from the interaction between entropy and the gelling of new forms and ideas.”
Perrin’s new small canvases begin with scenes painted from photos the artist snapped at Walmart. Perrin’s aisles, shelves, bins, and shiny floors are engulfed in clouds of chromatic debris—literally scraps scraped from his paint palette. The surfaces here are almost impossibly painterly—the gooey gobs of color seem like they could slough off at any second. The noisy, chaotic fields call to mind a bomb exploding but make more sense as the literal representation of the detritus that swirls around our disposable consumer culture on its ecological and financial race to the bottom like the black cyclone that’s formed by filthy water as it runs—ever faster—straight down the drain.
Don’t expect Perrin and his intense, rooted paintings to go so easily.
James Perrin is represented by Zeitgeist Gallery. His works are currently on view at the Frist Center in the group show Abstractometry until February 2.