The San Francisco Fine Arts Museums’ extensive collection of works on paper reposes downstairs at the Legion of Honor in a well-appointed and silent print room, where for one hour per year visitors may view up to fifteen pieces by appointment. This morning, the wall of windows on the oceanward side of the space admits a cool diffuse light, and before it, laid out upon an open portfolio on a conference table, there lies a large etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi entitled “View of the Octangular Temple of Minerva Medica”; far below its dome, two figures stand in hats and breeches conversing at ease. From an irregularly sized pile of rag paper beside him, James Perry selects a small sheet and begins sketching the pair in soft pencil. He has chosen to study this print out of all those works that the curator has pulled, among them a Vija Celmins mezzotint of stars and planets, Hockney’s ink drawing of Sir John Gielgud, and a tiny etched self-portrait by Rembrandt. When the allotted time is up, Perry removes his materials to an iron table on the terrace outside, chooses a larger sheet with a white ground prepared on it, and in a series of delicate marks draws the author of this article en plein air in silverpoint. “When I was in college I had a chance to work on a collection of Egyptian photographs at the Metropolitan Museum in New York,” he says. “On Mondays the place was closed but I could go through on my breaks and look at art. Looking at pictures and making the work are two very different activities. I was always obsessed with drawing. What I love about drawing is how the mind creates meaning in a line. All the other stuff is gravy.”
“I have an archaic education,” he continues. “I learned things like lithography, as opposed to computers. I had to learn to use computers later.” A draftsman who prefers what are called without irony old master techniques may well find himself on the outs with the partisans of fashion and gimmickry in art, but that likelihood doesn’t seem to have occurred to Perry; and in any case it has nothing to do with his practice: yet, when we look at his work, we marvel at its contours’ suggestion of an imaginal depth that puts all merely optical volumetrics in the dark. What’s more, although even in these drawings we are invited to project ourselves into a pictorial scene or person, the firm and determinate outline, directly opposed to trompe l’oeil effects and verisimilar sfumato edges, never allows us for a moment to forget that we’re looking at a representation, not an illusion; and this quality – much like integrity of character in private and public social life – though it sometimes renders an approach or an interaction difficult, proves all the more rewarding for bulking forth over against us, and meeting us halfway, precisely by declaring its otherness: such refusal of trickery is therefore tantamount to an ethical concern to attain to the highest levels of artifice by addressing the viewer’s emotive intellect.
“I’m just a guy who draws a lot, and gives away quite a few pieces, and sometimes makes large drawings,” Perry continues, taking up the conversation via email after his visit. His plainspokenness and humility belie a formidable sophistication. As one suspects he would be the last to insist, his work has only incidental relations with Expressionism, and he hasn’t expended much energy in Surrealist directions either. He writes: “I always think of Morandi’s remark: ‘For me nothing is abstract. In fact, I believe there is nothing more surreal, nothing more abstract than reality.’ I love that.” Giorgio Morandi’s intense and tenderly narrow concentration upon a limited range of motifs in still life and landscape – along with his exquisitely contrasted color washes, ruminative brushstrokes, and softly applied shading and cross-hatching – stirs the viewer to a finesse of the spirit. “In a show I once saw called ‘Rembrandt Through Morandi’s Eyes,’ you could tell how inspired Morandi was, especially before he solidified his own language. Morandi led a quiet life and did his own thing,” he concludes, alluding, one suspects, to the Italian master’s purity and self-imposed solitude, his forsaking of fame in favor of an academic career, and his non-neutral but apolitical strict avoidance of all “subject matter” under Fascism.
An artist’s offhand remarks about a beloved artwork always strike one as more revealing than autobiographical statements. Perry notes a formative encounter: “An early influence was The Ragpicker by Manet which hangs in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. I saw it when I was a teenager and was wholly swept in and away by it.” Fascinated with contemporary life, not for its own sake but as it related to the problem of representation, Manet absorbed the habits of Renoir and employed them in the service of an encyclopedic memory: his paintings depict a negotiation between the artworks he’d seen, which served as compositional models, and the visual reality as represented by an emerging art of photography. Perry’s early choice of Manet, and his choice of this canvas in particular from among the painter’s work, reveals not only a similarly learnèd approach, but also a predilection for the monumental and realistic treatment of overlooked or ignored objects. “Recently I’ve been appreciating Manet because he was very honest about depicting what is,” Perry says. “A drawing is like a bit like a lie detector. When I am honest about what I see and feel, it’s always the best.”
“This is also in the Sumi tradition,” he adds, introducing a subject without some undersatnding of which it would be impossible to grasp his art. The ideal conception of Perry’s forms, the spare elegance of his compositions, and the singular character of his marks originate in an engagement with the Ink Wash tradition. With customary modesty, he states the depth of this interest: “It is really the Sumi tradition that got me to believe, initially, in paper. I think the initial influence on my work was really Sumi-e. I love the philosophy that this medium (it’s obviously more than that) conveys. The more I think about Sumi ink and Sumi-e art, the more I realize its profound effect on my idea of style and my idea of drawing. This is so central that it fills my vision. I hardly even know it’s there, I suppose as if I were wearing glasses.” The training and discipline that Perry himself doesn’t flaunt assert themselves in the reverence with which he describes this form.
Speaking with someone who lives life so as to make art, we frequently perceive how the creative process and the manner of living affect each other. In Perry’s case, the vision implicit in his distinctive mixture of Impressionism and Ink Wash inheres in his version of an itinerant craftsman’s lifestyle. “At a shop down the street here in Luzern there are a Renoir and a Degas for sale,” he says of the small Swiss city where he presently resides. “It’s also instructive to compare the local sights with Félix Valloton’s amazing and sometimes stunningly quiet work. Today I go and look at his patintings at a large exhibition in Zurich.” And he adds: “Everywhere in Switzerland are echoes of Vuillard.” Perry’s wandering existence has at once taken him far afield and deepened his commitment to a tradition, as he discovers that people intuitively understand what he would be about: “While drawing portraits for money is a cool way to turn paper into money, moments between myself and a human subject are really what I am after,” he notes. “It’s an engagement with the world. Either people or landscape or both combined. In Cambodia I realized that digital cameras could show a photo to a local, but a drawing really is a nice gift and interaction. In my late twenties I got hurt in an accident, and I was broke for a while, so I started selling drawings at Venice Beach and Monterey. I just drew the scenes. At Venice especially, you can really be any kind of artist and do OK. This was a huge breakthrough for me. I had already been documenting people in subways, etc., but drawing and selling along the California coastline taught me a lot about what people like, and how to meet viewers.” What effect did this wandering existence have on his work? “It changed my style drastically. I’m a lot more forgiving. I have grown to appreciate what others think and feel. I still have all this esoteric appreciation about it, but a more subtle approach. The only thing better than a frame to make drawings stand out is for someone to see the thing made. It causes the meaning of discerning the apparently casual to stand out.” Hardly concerned solely with superficial appearances, such statements testify to an enlargement into commonality on the basis of human connections.
When it comes to making significant contact with the intangible processes by which artists create artworks, the widely distributed contemporary art press offers little assistance. Addressing gallerists and collectors who are supposedly preoccupied with market trends, rather than artists and exhibition-goers who are surely obsessed with art, such periodicals display markedly similar perspectives, citing for example “a Balloon Dog (Orange) under the Jeff Koons label [sic]” (The New York Times) and “mindless [sic] Jeff Koons sculptures” (San Francisco Art Quarterly). Our forlorn system of bureaucratic subsidization, with its official sanctions and interdictions, resembles early Catholicism’s institutional attitude toward the individual artist; a glance at mainsteam art-news organs reveals that in their wish to appear current and thereby to maintain business relationships with advertisers and investors, they don’t look imaginatively enough into the past. A more completely emotion-centered idea of art patronage than our bourgeois-capitalist reality offers might take into account the fact that the relationship between patron and artist began as beaux gestes, playfully binding contracts which travestied the ritualized blood oath of vassalage taken before the same patron by ordinary dependents and retainers. Implying the humble recognition that nowadays all of an artist’s fellow human beings are potential patrons in this special anachronistic sense, James Perry’s written correspondence reveals his drive to maintain a paradoxically tense and empathetic attention to the privacy of those around him. “I like to observe, even if I do certainly wax on abstraction,” he says. “The inner sense affects the outer world. I like that. As a relatively straightforward artist, it does get easier or more consistent or deeper or more socially liberating (or appropriate) the ‘better’ at my craft I get – I suppose because people more easily recognize the gateway the work might serve as.” On a more personal note, though still characteristically reticent, he likewise notes a diaristic tendency in his work: “Often I fill notebooks and they take on themes – a narrative of life. Drawing as such a simple activity has been for me so fulfilling – real satisfaction. Patterns emerge. It’s been twenty years now. My work is all over the world in homes and I don’t document much of it, honestly.” These remarks show not an insecure disdain for the art world at large, nor an ignorance of it, but a mature disinterest, in favor of objects proper to an artist’s interest.
Exchanging messages with Perry, one discovers – going hand in hand with his convivial and creaturely enjoyment of food and drink, and the high regard in which he holds plant and animal life – an intense preoccupation with the makeup and behavior of various artistic implements: the construction, chemical composition, and weight of different brands and varieties of pen, nib, pencil, ink, charcoal stick, paper, notebook, oil bar, brush, copper plate, acid bath, and so on. As he puts it in a recent note: “One practical thing is that I am grateful that I really don’t have to be selfish about my materials. A box of 2b Cretacolor top-end pencils costs about thirty-five bucks and that’s a lot of drawing with the very best, in my humble opinion. Low-cost materials may seem small, but honestly it’s one of the best things that I have going. It doesn’t hurt either that I am not poisoning the earth (or myself) with terrible materials. I love a lot of art, painters and paintings too, but I’m thrilled not to be burdened with all of the above.” That the artist should be disburdened of unnecessary weight – as if anything too “heavy,” in any sense, has no place within the artist’s life – is a tenet Perry takes for granted: to beautiful effect, luckily for us.
When one leaves a museum or gallery or private collection, even after having whiled away many hours by looking at artworks in a generous artist’s instructive and challenging presence, the distracting and deceptive nature of visual data presents a no less perilous aspect to the wary eye than it did before; and yet the visual world’s position vis-a-vis one’s own experience becomes clarified: if such a world as ours might serve as the basis for these idealized forms, these gorgeously simplified representations of the common objects which suddenly appear in art as we’ve always sensed they might become in life – and as they sometimes even seem just about to become at any moment – then the objects themselves that one perceives with the eye, and the eye itself, strike us as things we can learn from and enjoy, even as we regard them with justified skepticism. A living exponent of several distinct traditions which he has uniquely synthesized, James Perry thus purifies and elevates our involvement with art.
Originally published in A Guy Should Know, 2013