Sarah Perry


The Natural
Pasadena Weekly, vol. 15 no. 20; May 15-21, 1998.

Presently at the Old Town's Armory Center for the Arts, an arresting exhibit coordinated by curator Jaime Villaneda and gallery director Jay Belloli, surveys a decade of mixed media sculpture by Southern California artist Sarah Perry, whose one-of-a-kind creations continue to grow in significance.

Showcasing work ranging from a larger-than-life-sized gorilla to tabletop items small enough to fit in the palm of the hand, “Sarah Perry: Natural Selection 1988-1998” delightfully bombards the visitor with a human hand made of thousands of minute bird and rodent bones, a hammered metal model of a Spanish galleon spreading roots which dangle down a gallery wall, a stuffed raven swathed in twine and mounted on casters like some sort of mobile mummy and a fictitious prognostication apparatus which looks like a cross between a quack device from St. Louis Science Museum and a prop from a séance parlor.

Both an organicist, primarily concerned with the properties of organic matter and with natural processes, and a vitalist, who sees physical organisms and even machines as infused and activated by some sort of immaterial life force, Perry scavenges bones, feathers, insects, weathered wood and bits of junk she assembles in a recombinant architecture reminiscent of Ed Keinholz and the best traditions of assemblage. The result is a marriage of Charles Darwin and P. T. Barnum.

Animals hold a special place in Perry's heart, not only for their own sake, but as analogs of many aspects of human existence, too. One of the animals sculpturally interpreted by Perry is the mountain gorilla, and the centerpiece of her current exhibit is undoubtedly “Route 40: Bill”, a 700-pound rubber ape fabricated from discarded truck tires. The musculature of this charming monster is so realistic and the pose so convincing that the viewer cannot help but wonder how the artist managed to manipulate the component strips of tire tread around the massive steel armature. Details such as “Bill's” nipples, his paw fringe, his forehead, face, and most of all, his expression, defy the bulky, unwieldy material from which they are formed. This showstopper is a tour de force of technique.

Books are another of Perry's preoccupations. In her hands, these familiar objects assume extra dimensions. In works such as “The Margin Of Malleability” and “What's Underneath Us”, open books are overlaid with fish heads, fish hooks, moths and ink drawings. Other book-constructions such as “Bitter Rain”, “The Nature of the Beast” and “I Only Dream in Black and White” reflect Perry's fascination with meteorology, combining carcasses of lizards and cicadas with photos of poodles and beautiful drawings of chameleons, lightning bolts and cyclones. In “The High Cost Of Living”, the pages of a book are penetrated by millipedes as a painted flight of geese traverses the text from left to right, while a fox muzzle protrudes from the weathered pages of a rotting bible in “Speaking In Tongues”. These “books” burst with frozen moments of concretized phenomena from other realms; little static dramas which speak of the raw power of Nature---manifest as uncontrollable weather, or of irresistible instinct. They also speak quietly of environmental imperatives, though never angrily or preachily.

Perry is not without philosophical concerns, among the most important of which have to do with issues of evolutionary transition in natural history and of the preservation or ephemerality of civilization. She is deeply preoccupied by the timeless conflict of the spirit and the flesh, by the cycles of nature and by nature's mistakes. She is given to recurring studies in decay. Her visual compost of skull puppets, dead skinks and Pleistocene storks; her fixation on physiological processes; and her slaughterhouse motifs of guts, excrement and egesta express an intention to reflect the world as it is, septicity and all, to face mortality head on and confront an earth full of holes, infestations and mutilations.

Other implications and undercurrents informing her ouvre have to do with allegory, myth and prophecy. As a self-taught taxidermist, she is a keen student of bodily structures and, as an expert metalworker, she is a skilled manipulator of industrial debris, which she ably vitalizes, energizes and anthropomorphizes, often in jest. For Perry, everything is ultimately transfigured and transmogrified by a grand Fertilizer Principle. She maintains an elaborate personal language of signs and portents; of beaks and muzzles, fangs and claws, feathers and fur, bugs, anatomical parts, orifices and oral incorporation which warn us, in their peculiar code, that it's a dog eat dog world and that time is a bird and the bird is on the wing.

All these ideas and more inspirit a miscellany of Perry's floor pieces, wall pieces and shelf pieces filling the Armory's three galleries. A partial inventory includes “The Miracle”, a portrait of Albert Einstein etched onto a burnt tortilla; “The Sibyl Of Lida”, an altar consisting of a horse muzzle mounted like a hunter's trophy on a backboard surrounded by thorns and crested with copper tubing snakes with lizard heads and hands; “Bingo”, a hand-cranked raffle drum containing numbered wooden balls signifying the aleatory nature of existence; “By The Time I'm Thirty”, a porkpie hat propped on a pedestal and brimming with wishbones; “Magic Chef”, a rusted contraption like a cider press which pulps the remains of a tiny mouse and dispenses an extract into a bucket; “Entropy”, a faucet from which drips a stream of brittle bones; “The Ascent Of Man”, a speedometer panel fitted with pocket watches, beneath which a row of men atavistically marches backwards in time towards a dangling skeleton; “Cadeucus”, a metal pole lamp stanchion atop which is perched a crucified winged cat amalgam—--a hideous, screaming, contorted herald of terrors; “Twelve Steps”, a rat at the summnit of a cliff of twelve stone ledges; and “Half Moon Gulch”, a house (actually a rusted Log Cabin syrup can) set on an old wooden plank with rusty nails protruding, a tree made from twisted nails and cat hairs representing wild vegetation.

Perry's imagination knows no bounds. As in the use of cactus spines molded into a fascimile beard, she subjects hubcaps, dashboards, doll parts, burro craniums, plumb lines, magnifiers, clock alarms, sardine tine, astrolabes, flat irons, fossils, jawbones, backboards perforated by a pellet gun, spigots and cocoons to innumerable ingenious applications.

In “Adeloscope”, a mock oracle is fashioned from snake ribs, a radio receiver, brass, copper and bone dust--—a fortune-telling device for penetrating the veils of the unknown and seeing what is hidden. Looking like a weird accompaniment to an ancient secret rite, this is a mirror at which one can listen to muffled spiritual essences and learn what endures and what doesn't.

“Wings”, a succession of detached bird's wings mounted in flight pattern across two walls, poses questions as to what constitutes the “essence” or “form” of a creature's identity. Are a bird's wings or a a lizard's head and tail the indispensible identifying traits of these beings? “Wings” also makes a poignant statement about permanance and transience.

One part field biologist, one part paleontologist, one part pagan, Sarah Perry stomps through the ghost town of our world with the sensibility of a seeress, picking over rotten boards, exposing lizards, picking apart owl turds in search of excreted bonelets and peering through her rusted telescope at both ends-—dim future and distant past. Winds howl at the empty window panes and whisper at the creaky hinges of the broken doors of our planet-shack. Seas rise and fall. In the scheme of geologic time, we are left with essences—--platonic shells of wings minus bodies, of skeletons minus meat. Mindful that everything we see or seem is but a dream within a dream, Perry whistles in the desolation, musing on her latest project—--a tornado made of spare ribs!