L.A. artist Sarah Perry works in the now-classic form of Assemblage. At 42. she's not particularly well known. If there is any justice, her first survey exhibition, now at the Pasadena Armory, should fix that. Simply put, "Sarah Perry: Natural Selection, 1988-1998" is a revelation.
In terms of sheer physical bulk. the centerpiece of the show is "Gorilla Route 40: Bill." It immediately exercises all the weird charm of those life-size stuffed animals at better toy stores everywhere. Once Bill's got your attention, however, he resonates. We're reminded that in the world according to Darwin, this looming simian is our ancestor. The proposition is reinforced by the fact that Bill is made entirely of black rubber tire tread. Presumably scavenged by the artist on the aforementioned road, such dropped treads are often the prelude to a bad accident.
So, if evolution made us out of the same stuff as the gorilla and Perry made him out of stuff we make, then we're all made of the same stuff, right? If we find him grotesque, we have to look at the carnage we wreak and find ourselves monstrous, too. So, in a very real way, the only way to redeem ourselves is to find Bill lovable.
Perry makes these kinds of complex detached philosophical observations with an ease one might normally insist to be beyond the grasp of the visual arts. One way she achieves this is by fusing the elements of her work so carefully that the result seems inevitable. The gorilla is meticulously well made, from his anatomy right down to his flat nose and toenails. Yet the virtuoso performance is clearly not a showoff turn. It's done to get itself out of the way, so we can concentrate on what Perry has to express.
Inevitably, art lovers will look at Bill and recall Picasso's similar simian, with its toy-car snout. It's a terrific object, but Perry's strikes me as noticeably richer. The gorilla makes important basic points about Perry's interest in natural science and, as reported in a catalog essay, her conviction that everything in the world is part of nature, including human-generated phenomena like technology. Aside from that. Bill is something of an anomaly.
Some 60 additional pieces demonstrate that Perry usually works on a much smaller scale, with no loss of impact or variety. She's a bit like her own "Growing Pains," which shows a brain forming from roots of rope. She deftly conveys the effects of genetic heritage in "Introvert." The work consists of a crawling infant doll already pulling its head into its turtle shell. In "Miracle" she made her own Shroud of Turin by toasting a portrait of Einstein onto a tortilla. How do you suppose she managed that?
Books form the base of numerous pieces. "What's Underneath Us" is open to a page picturing a church. Perry added myriad tiny moths, just as she added worms to "The High Cost of Living." Looks like she's hip to Stephen J. Gould's reminder that the most successful organism on the planet isn't us, it's bacteria.
All that, if you like, is just the light fare. Other works include "Speaking in Tongues," which consists of little more than the mummified muzzle of a tiny fox boring through a Bible's crumbling pages; "Caduceus," a crucified chimera of feline head, wings and a snake skeleton; and "Serendipity," a rusted old-fashioned sardine can rolled open to expose the mummified heads of kittens.
Such works touch on a realm of poetic mystery that simply rejects glib interpretation or cliches about life and death. They embody that rare sensation of realizing that terror and solace, the transcendent and the untouchable, are inextricable parts of one another.
It's difficult to imagine a museum of modern art where Perry would look like an amateur. She appears to belong among a small, evolved group of what mignt be called L.A. Conceptual Assemblage artists that also includes Michael McMillen and Peter Shelton. If this exhibition fails to broaden appreciation of Perry's art, that will be about what's wrong with the art world.
She's not without impressive admirers. The late Sam Francis collected her work, as have museum directors Pontius Hulten and the Getty's John Walsh. The Getty Center commissioned an inaugural children's book Perry titled "If. . . ." It's irresistible. People who care about L.A. culture owe one to Armory, gallery director Jay Belloli and especially his associate, the exhibition's curator, Jaime Villaneda. They've focused attention on an extraordinarily gifted artist.
Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena, through June 14, closed Mondays and Tuesdays.