Man of Steel: Joel Perlman at Loretta Howard
At Loretta Howard Gallery this month, six sculptures by Joel Perlman make the best argument I’ve found recently for reassessing a growing tendency to consider an artist’s dedication to working with a specific material as something that has passed into history. I don’t mean to imply that the assemblage techniques currently dominating, for instance, the Turner Prize competition are not adding to a welcome broadening of the sculptural genre. I’m wary of allowing technical mastery to lapse into a misguided notion of obsolescence. Intimate knowledge of a material gained through hands-on experience and nurtured along with an artist’s talent, judgement and intuition, has been a property of sculpture shared by nearly all cultures and in nearly all historical contexts. It is not a style. It is the recognition that sculpture has a formal essence.
As Perlman’s work shows, to develop an intimate and tactile knowledge of a specific material is not to unduly confine one’s experience, but to foster a level of focus that frees intuition and helps an artist develop an instinct for spatial language. His passion for industrial metal, specifically steel came early in his education. Leaving his native New York to spend a portion of his undergraduate years studying with welded sculpture pioneer Brian Wall at the Central School of Art in London, he returned to the states to complete a degree at Cornell, then went on to Berkeley. Though Wall has been a definite influence on his work, the sculptures at Loretta Howard are very much in the tradition of David Smith, particularly in regard to Smith’s innovative drawing mode as exemplified in the Whitney’s Hudson River Landscape (1951).
Like Perlman’s 2014 exhibition at Loretta Howard, the current work concentrates on a motif of open circular frames, with perimeters punctuated by half round and triangular shards dispersed intuitively along their curved edges. These marks function like swells and blots along a line of ink. One might consider them distant cousins to Pollock’s flung sinews, but the level of compositional control Perlman displays belies that tempting parallel. More than signs of mere spontaneity, these smaller elements read as stops or accents on a line of thought. When enlarged they intrude into the open space within each circle, redefine that space and accentuate the work’s abstraction. When smaller, they enliven pieces like Double Trouble (2015) by provoking a calligraphic interpretation that can lend itself to a range of implied references. Triangles suggest saw teeth; strings of half-rounds suggest worn gears.
Yet in either case, Perlman favors the abstract side of the spectrum and keeps the viewer’s eye trained on how the open spaces are defined by interruptions along the overlapping curves that define each piece. In Masterpiece(2015), a lower and upper emphasis on perpendicular circles cluster in a way that gives the space created in the center an illusion of expansion, which subsequently de-emphasizes the implied references to machinery. It is a delicate balance that changes with one’s concentration. The control Perlman demonstrates attests to his comfort with thinking in formal terms. Foremost here is a non-verbal and intuitive methodology apparently developed over decades of practice.
Perlman’s confidence allows him to occasionally leave the tactile security of steel, which informs his process through a feeling for weight, resistance and flexibility, and move to a near weightless material like Styrofoam in order to construct sculptures designed to be cast in bronze by means of a process similar to lost wax. Four of the pieces in the exhibition, including Double Trouble are fabricated this way. Casting in this manner is not all that different from the usual welding procedures, considering that it is based on assembled elements. Moreover, the production of multiples to which casting is often associated, is not possible in a loss system. Thus the motivation for its use is more like an exploration of visual ideas—sketching so to speak, not creating a line of multiples.
Each of the four cast pieces received a unique patina. Though subtle in range, color is important to Perlman, who prefers color that seems to deviate modestly from the look of the material beneath. And as he works intuitively, so experimentation with painting techniques follow. The two larger pieces in the gallery, Broadway (2016) and Wonder Wheel (2015–16) have been painted using a technique called powder painting or e-coating, which employs an electric current running through the sculpture that encourages an ionic bond between pigment and surface.
The formal vocabulary established in the smaller bronze pieces takes on an entirely different feel in the considerably larger Wonder Wheel. Here the triangular and half-round elements are scaled up, releasing them from their accentuating role and putting them to work merging and equalizing their relationship to the circular elements. A sense of solidity now joins the shards to the curve, leaving a more unified mass, the effect of which is to draw the eye to the irregular spaces between the solid elements—spaces that resemble the simplified edges of Matisse’s cutouts. They also — perhaps accidentally — create a pun on the idea of a cut-out.
It is this complexity, arising from nuance set upon nuance that makes contemplating these six sculptures a rich and open-ended experience. The variety of uses to which a few elements can be employed is limited only by the artist’s ability to see beyond the material fact of each shape toward a unified sculptural essence. And that ability, that sensitivity to variation and adaptation that Perlman’s work clearly demonstrates, ought to be a larger part of sculpture’s continued progress.