Jeff Perrone by Roberto Juarez

BOMB 42 Winter 1993
042 Winter 1993

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

Perrone 01

Jeff Perrone, Philip’s Dilemma, 1992, gouache on canvas, (two panels), glazed earthenware (four parts), nails, 18×84 inches.

El Trabajo de Jeff Perrone esta en un “Honeymoon” en India con el arte de Ellsworth Kelly pero, aqui hable y charla con Roberto Juarez in Nueva York por la primera vez sin bochinche.

Roberto Juarez What’s the point of copying? Why do you need sources?

Jeff Perrone Why do people paint apples or trees? I copy other art just as someone else would copy anything in the visual environment. Mine includes the books I study. The pictures are my subject matter, my raw material, just like print media and advertising are other artists’ subject matter.

RJ When I look at your work, I don’t see it as copies of art. The juxtaposition of panels, the ceramic and the painting, usually speaks to some cultural issues beyond the source.

JP I hope so. I do care.

RJ Care about what?

JP That it’s more than pretty. I’m drawn to some things more than others, like Indian art. But it doesn’t matter that I copy, but what I copy. My cultural “issues” are not, however, about copying mass culture.

RJ I really don’t see what you do as copying. You change the size, the scale, and the parts put together make up something completely different. And it’s not tongue-in-check, ironic, it’s not trying to be “bad.”

JP I unabashedly love my sources. I would only reproduce something I love. I would never quote ironically. I may have an ironic relationship with modern Western painting but I would never condescend to my non-Western sources and pretend some superiority. Hindu myths are more interesting to me than Christian ones. I love Durga, the Goddess of Destruction, slaying the buffalo demon of ignorance with blood spurting out all over—isn’t that more interesting than the simpering Madonna and Child?

RJ That’s more interesting because it’s relevant to your life? Or your studies? Or because it looks good?

JP It’s got to be visually enticing in the first place. I’ve learned a lot about Indian art, because I’ve looked at a lot of it, and that’s how you gain some understanding. But understanding and love are two different things. You look at certain things and fall immediately in love, and copying them is getting intimate with them. Copying is like staring at your lover for a really long time.

RJ You didn’t grow up surrounded by Indian and Persian art. Wasn’t it more classic, contemporary American art?

JP The first art I ever bought was Indian.

RJ How old were you?

JP Umm, 12.

RJ How did you come across Indian art as 12-year-old? Did your family collect art?

JP Yes. Do we have to talk about this?

RJ What did they collect? What do you remember?

JP I remember not wanting to have anything to do with it. What am I supposed to say, that we used to jot down phone numbers on the Ryman? That’s not important.

RJ I think it was important to your education.

JP I totally rejected it.

RJ To be able to reject it, you have to have known it. If you live with it, there’s no mystery about it.

JP It was absolutely not mysterious to me. It’s why I have an ironic relation to modern painting. The kind of art I discovered on my own, gave me pleasure …

RJ Your love of Indian painting …

JP But that’s true of Native American art, too. And Japanese art. I don’t know about you, but when I grew up, everything was Indians, Indians, Indians. We went on digs when we were ten and excavated ancient sites and arrowheads and pottery shards, and we looked at baskets and ran around in two washcloths learning how to make tepees. We never imitated cowboys.

RJ Well, you must have looked like an Indian.

JP No, I always looked like I was from Brooklyn.

RJ You grew up in Brooklyn?

JP No, I looked like it. Which is why I moved to New York as soon as I could.

Perrone 02

Jeff Perrone, Economic Effects of Overpopulation, 1992, gouache on canvas, glazed earthenware (eight parts), nails, 54 x 18 inches.

RJ You put writing in a lot of the new work. That painting has a panel that asks, “Does easel painting have a future?” On top is a tile passage with two storks and trees, and the bottom panel has a gentleman running out of the picture. The words are funny. The whole word “future” didn’t fit in, so you put the “e” in an empty space at the top, out of place. It’s very casual, unplanned.

JP Oh, but I did.

RJ You planned that mistake?

JP Can you plan a mistake? I also deliberately misplaced the question mark. You have to read back up to find it. I didn’t want the viewer to think you should only read top to bottom.

RJ To me it looked like a casual arrangement, and you ran out of room.

JP In a way, it was planned to look casual.

RJ Where does that question about each painting come from, anyway?

JP From an interview with Matisse. I asked a series of very pointed questions, like, “Why are you in love with the arabesque?” It was after he’d stopped doing easel paintings and was absorbed in the cutouts, which cannot be framed. They’re environmental.

RJ Could you see your work framed?

JP The point is, you can’t frame them. The support, the nails, go right through the front of the tiles.

RJ Why did you start working in clay?

JP The short answer, the autobiographical answer? I was stuck teaching school in Texas.

RJ Teaching what?

JP Art history and theory, supposedly. I was there for three months. It was extremely depressing. You saw nothing but “Bush for President” signs on front lawns. The part of campus furthest away from the art department was the ceramics quonset hut. It’s where my grad students hung out. Given the fact that there is nothing to do in Texas but drink and shoot animals, I started playing around with clay to relieve boredom.

RJ When was this?

JP It had to be ’84, because there was a general election.

RJ You write about art. Were you writing then?

JP Yes.

RJ Did you always make art, even when you were writing?

JP I’m going to lie and say I didn’t.

RJ Why lie? Is it a secret?

JP No. I just wasn’t very serious about making art until five years ago. Even when I started working with clay and glaze, it was more like therapy.

RJ What kind of therapy?

JP I don’t know. Ceramics takes up a lot of time. It’s a long process, waiting for things to dry, glazing them, firing them, cooling them. It takes days and days, even though you’re not actually doing anything.

RJ I’m curious about your writing. Most people don’t know your art work, but know your writing.

JP I wrote for a very long time. As a discipline, I gave it a lot of thought, in and of itself. It’s a basic part of my experience and knowledge, just the way painting is. And like painting, I don’t usually make the words up, I quote.

RJ Will you read the text on this painting?

JP “It seems silly to say that perfection is this and nothing else, as if there were not 25 different kinds of perfection.”

RJ Who said that?

JP An Indian dance teacher. She was explaining how she couldn’t understand why Western classical ballet had set patterns that were unalterable and had to be repeated every time in the same way. If you don’t do exactly what you’re told, the result is less than perfect. Whereas, in the Indian concept, every time you do something, you are doing it at another time, in another place, and you do it differently. Improvising is not just accepted, but encouraged. Everything is subject to change and there cannot be one ideal perfect performance. In other words, she was being much more real about how we actually live our lives.

RJ The first time I saw these odd shapes of yours, I thought of Elizabeth Murray, those very complicated paintings that are like explosions.

JP But you know who I’m really thinking about?

RJ Who?

JP My favorite gay artist, Ellsworth Kelly.

RJ Oh really? Multiple panels …

JP That are neutral units, which is not like Murray at all. Her shapes are irregular and grow out of some emotional journey she takes during the drawing process. Kelly just uses one thing after the other, bang, bang, bang.

RJ I wanted to read a quotation from a Tagore short story, “The Postmaster.” Satyajit Ray made a film of it. “The shimmer of freshly washed leaves and the banked-up remnants of the retreating rain-clouds were sights to see; and the postmaster was watching them and thinking to himself: ‘Oh, if only some kindred soul were near—just one loving human being whom I could hold near my heart!’ This was exactly, he went on to think, what that bird was trying to say, and it was the same feeling which the murmuring leaves were trying to express. But no one knows, or would believe, that such an idea might also take possession of an ill-paid village postmaster in the deep silent midday interval in his work.” That makes me think of you, Jeff. You know the shop you work at during the day …

JP Oh, let’s plug the printer who employs me.

RJ You work with a lot of Puerto Ricans.

JP Blacks and Puerto Ricans, most of whom are either Vietnam vets or ex-cons. People in the art world wouldn’t last three minutes with them without being reduced to tears. This is real life, and these guys don’t put up with any bullshit. It’s so refreshing.

RJ Why ex-cons?

JP It’s what they learned as a trade in prison, when they still bothered to teach trades. These are the greatest people to work with. Everyone means exactly what he says. It’s completely the opposite of the art world.

Perrone 03

Jeff Perrone, Issues and Concerns of Everyday Life, 1992, Gouache on canvas (two panels), glazed earthenware (nine parts), nails, 45 x 45 inches.

RJ I bring this up because your work is lyrical, quite romantic, very beautiful, in complete contrast to what your job is and where you live.

JP Gee, I don’t think so.

RJ It is to me. That quote brings it into focus.

JP It makes you think that when I’m at work I suffer because I can’t share my life as an artist?

RJ There are gazelles in these paintings. There are no gazelles, no Native American pottery or wild goddesses in your day.

JP In my “real” life?

RJ It’s completely separate.

JP Separate from my “art” life, whatever that is?

RJ You have this very rich, inner art life. Starting out as a boy who collected art, who appreciated art, you developed a love to the point that you’d copy it. I was thinking of you at the print shop, stopping, thinking about art …

JP Working around presses gives you a lot of time to think, so it’s sort of like ceramics. I prefer to spend that time at work, thinking about art, rather than hanging around the studio, bored and waiting for inspiration to strike, because it doesn’t work that way for me.

RJ No? It’s more systematic?

JP I don’t experiment and putter around in the studio. I have to already know what I’m going to do, otherwise it’s a waste of time.

RJ Why would that be a waste of time?

JP Because I never learn anything by diddling around with materials or fantasizing about what something might be. I either know what something’s going to look like or I don’t.

RJ But your work doesn’t look planned and executed.

JP I’m not a complete control freak. With ceramics, you can’t be. You try your best, but you end up giving the work up to the kiln. Just like you have to eventually give your work up to the world, and accept what happens, what people say about it. You can’t control it forever. You can’t keep your work forever, although it’s starting to look like I’ll have to …

RJ Well, why don’t you put it in group shows?

JP This will never go into the interview, so, the obvious answer is that no one asks.

RJ Why don’t they?

JP Do you want some deeper reason?

RJ Yes.

JP How about, my work doesn’t fit neatly into any group at the moment.

RJ Why not?

JP Look, I make the kind of work that I make. I can’t help it. The kinds of things I’m concerned with aren’t very popular with people in the art world right now. That’s okay.

RJ There are no other exotic structuralists?

JP What a good label! I don’t know any others. Maybe I’m too comfortable not fitting in, but I’m not going to worry about it.

RJ I want to go over some gender issues, because looking at your work, it often seems that you’re balancing a male and a female aspect.

JP Where are you going with this topic? Are you trying to make my work “relevant?”

RJ Am I completely off the wall?

JP (Silence)

RJ Do you build it into your work? In this painting, a gazelle is being shot, and having an orgasm.

JP Well, males eject their sperm when they die.

RJ They do?

JP Yeah, even human males. Haven’t you been around people when they die?

RJ I haven’t.

JP I certainly have. This is a very violent scene, a maharajah shooting the animal, and it’s also sexual, and also a beautiful, delicate image, with two, plump deer prancing across the bottom of the picture.

RJ If male artists were to express a more feminine side, do you think they would be afraid that people would think they’re homosexual? Are you afraid of people thinking you’re homosexual?

JP Afraid? You want to talk about things that are really frightening?

RJ What are you afraid of? What are you really afraid of?

JP I don’t work out psychological problems in my work. You can’t work out a fear of snakes or spiders by painting.

RJ Being your friend and spending a lot of time with you, I’ve noticed you hate a lot of things.

JP (laughter)

RJ You hate a lot of art. And when I look at your art, it’s just the opposite, it’s all about love, which makes it a wonderful thing. But why do you hate so much stuff?

JP All I can say is that you put your best impulses into your work, not your worst impulses. If I can do that, it’s enough.

Roberto Juarez is a painter who lives in New York City and Miami Beach.

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Originally published in

BOMB 42, Winter 1993

Featuring interviews with Richard Serra, Steve Buscemi, Neil Jordan, Tom Zé by David Byrne & Arto Lindsay, Sue Williams, Sarah Schulman, Ralph Lee, Coco Fusco & Guillermo Gómez, Don Scardino, Jeff Perrone, and Walter Hill.

Read the issue
042 Winter 1993