Meet James Perkins, a sculpturist and painter originally from the South. Currently based in NYC, the Yale graduate who studied Chemistry came to his practice by way of wanting to create work that makes people feel good and optimistic about the future. He uses the outdoors to inform and react to his works, leaving many of his paintings outside with the elements to create the cohesion with nature that humans often seek. Read on to learn more about his inspirational practice.
Tell us about yourself and how you came to be an artist.
I grew up in the South before moving to New York, after Yale. I was a chemistry major who spent some time on Wall Street as I got to know myself, the city, and the world better.
I have always experienced the world extremely visually and going from Arkansas to New York only heightened my already sensitive sense of totems, values, worlds, and tribes.
The world sent me many nudges on how to be my true self, an artist, and I always tried to listen because growing up I didn’t have any models around of what I wanted to become. It’s like a yoga practice learning how to listen, trust and have confidence in one’s self.
Once, when I was having tea with friend and mentor, Giorgio DeLuca, I said I was contemplating business school and he looked at me and replied, “That would be a tragedy.” We then went to an opera and I was thinking about that statement the entire time.
I’m not sure you ever choose to be an artist, it grabs you! There are too many other things that are easier. It is up to you to listen and to choose how seriously you take it
Describe your work in three words.
Seeking universal beauty.
What draws you to this type of work?
The meditative nature of the work. I think slow and unplugging is still so important. One of my initial goals was to be able to bring back the tiniest piece of the way the sunset makes me feel, always good, optimistic, and part of something bigger with my community of humans. Something that could take you to that frame of mind when you experience it even when you are away from the powerful reminder by the sun and beach that we share this planet. If I could create work related to our simplest shared experience as a reminder that we are always more similar than dissimilar then I would be happy. That also meant being straight forward, not necessarily minimal, but no bullshit, no art jargon. And if you believe in that simple mandate then maybe my work is for you.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
The ocean is something I have spent a lot of time thinking about. I was a Chemistry major as an undergraduate and I think about things in terms of materials and elements. Our ocean is this immense resource and has this incredible presence and power. It conveys your smallness in a way I have only ever experienced in the mountains. It gives you the sense of standing at the edge of the world as we know it. I am fascinated by that feeling and I find it unifying. I am also inspired by our shared experience to paint our identity, and how we all navigate the history of totems to do so.
James Perkins says
“I am interested in universal experiences. A universal beauty. My first totem abstractions explored if I could endow inanimate objects with a similar emotion that we experience when getting dressed. So, I dressed and draped structures in fashion textiles. While the works are minimal or reductive in nature, there is a lot of figurative references in the material and process.”
What is your creative process? Walk us through each stage--from coming up with ideas/themes/concepts you want to explore, to translating that into an artistic vision, to creating the physical artworks and installations.
My process begins with tons of research. Reading, writing or even beginning a collection of objects or books. Art history, philosophy, and inventing are extremely important to me. Trying to arrive at a unique use of material and gesture is incredibly difficult if your intention is invention. I have discarded more works than I will ever show. The Burying Painting Event Horizon series began as a moment of spontaneity when I was making stretchers at the beach and I remembered this statement from Agnes Martin saying, along with other minimalist artists, that she wanted to make the last paintings. I wanted to be as bold and ambitious and romantic, so I thought, I want to bury painting. The irony was that burying a painting gave me another painting. And it was also the beginning of an entire way of working. Especially, working outdoors and in collaboration with nature. I arrived at my material via a Rauschenberg quote. He said, an artist’s material comes from an artist’s life. Clothing, totems, and any object that can be used to communicate tribe I’m interested in. Everyone dresses. Everyone has a body. We reveal by covering. I am interested in universal experiences. A universal beauty.
My first totem abstractions explored if I could endow inanimate objects with a similar emotion that we experience when getting dressed. So, I dressed and draped structures in fashion textiles. While the works are minimal or reductive in nature, there is a lot of figurative references in the material and process.
Each work is the result of a specific emotion or a mood or a feeling that everyone can relate to. I love the stories of Robert Irwin staring and a painting for months and moving one line a few millimeters. This latest body of work was a result of contemplating the sunset and the stars day after day after day. 99% of my work is created in collaboration with nature. After my solo show at the legendary Ace Gallery in Beverly Hills, I was fortunate enough to get up close and personal with the spirit of the West Coast artists of the “Light & Space” and “Land Art” movements. During my show, I took a studio in Venice beach not far from where James Turrell and Robert Irwin shared a studio space. I spent a lot of time outdoors, hiking, learning to surf, watching the sunset. I wanted to bring those feelings back to New York with me even if it didn’t initially make sense.
Being indoors, I think a bit of a thesis creep begins to happen. Subconsciously, you begin to think about what fits in those four walls, what you can do in that building etc. Some people become frightened by the idea of walking into an empty studio... think about an empty field! And it is already perfect!
The works start out outdoors as specific objects or post totem structures, as I like to call them, that can be walked around and experienced from 360 degrees. It is a strategy to explore the experience of weathering the vicissitudes of life. They eventually come indoors. Some works are restretched on traditional stretchers for more convenient wall display. Others are left on the original 2x4 wooden structures. One of the conceptions of the works was to explore the dichotomies of painting vs sculpture. Is it a painting or sculpture? I would suggest calling them “nonsites” after a way of working that Robert Smithson explored, which involved bringing things indoors away from their site of origin. I don’t get upset about what people call them. The other dichotomies explored in the work are life vs death, monumental art vs temporary installation, indoor vs outdoor, the body vs nonfigurative, nature vs nurture, light vs darkness, covering vs revealing, new vs old, value vs non value.
What influence does living in New York have on your work?
I think a lot about nature vs machine, haves vs have-nots, and how the notion of value can be abstracted.
When do you make your best work?
When I am in solitude in nature. Outdoors I am acutely aware of my body, my time, my limits, and my abilities void of societal influences. Once we cover ourselves with structures, then garments we begin to tell narratives that have to be decoded. I am seeking a neutral existence that we all share. Some say that’s crazy, that three is no such thing as a neutral existence. But it is my virtue. We all live under the sun. Our bodies all return to the earth. These notions are reflected in my process.
What influence does modern culture have on your work?
Very little. When I read a Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway or listen to Miles Davis or an opera, the people and the themes are still the same. Our desires and fears haven’t changed. That is what I am interested in. Whether we use a horse, or an app doesn’t change the basic human experience.
What is your relationship with social media?
Mental discipline. I remember the days of how hard it was to get information or product in the South so today’s flatness and connectivity is amazing. But it is also making people less present and less grateful.
What messages or emotions do you hope to convey to your audience?
My father always said that love is based in respect. I believe respect for our fellow human starts with an understanding of our shared experience of simply being on this planet together. Sharing the sun. Everyone has a horizon. We are all here together, experiencing 9.8 meters per second, rain, love, babies, families, the need for nourishment and shelter. Making something that conveys at some point in the process, I was here, I had thoughts and that the majority of our thoughts are similar, not dissimilar. I am searching for a neutral existence. A perfect truth. That which is the same to everyone despite point of view. A sunset.
Who are some contemporaries or figures in art history who have influenced you?
Donald Judd, Robert Irwin, Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, Walter de Maria, Eve Hesse, Matthew Barney, Richard Serra.
Are there any quotes or mantras that you particularly connect with?
If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.
What do you listen to when creating?
My intuition. The trick is to set up parameters so you can hear it. Sometimes I need silence, jazz, opera, or hip hop. Sometimes I need to go for a long drive and just listen to the road and the engine.
What makes you laugh?
What makes you nervous?
Not doing my best.
What makes you excited about the future?
About James Perkins
James Perkins creates time-based land art installations composed of primary structures in wood and silk. The work employs a system in nature to explore the beauty and experience of weathering the vicissitudes of life.
James Perkins received a BA from Yale University and a Masters from the School of Visual Arts. The artist lives and works in New York City and Fire Island, NY. His work has been exhibited with Ace Gallery Los Angeles, Metro Pictures, NYU The Institute of Fine Arts, MANA Contemporary, Dallas Contemporary, MTV RE: DEFINE and the School of Visual Arts. Lectures include NYU The Institute of Fine Arts, LACMA’s Avant-Garde and the University of Wisconsin. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, GQ.com, CNBC, ABC, FOX Business, Teen Vogue, and Entrepreneur Magazine among others. His brand collaborations have included: UBS, Marlborough Chelsea Gallery, The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey (LVMH) brands, The Standard Hotels, and Lehmann Maupin.
b. 1978, Hot Springs, AR
Lives and works in New York, NY and Fire Island, NY
James Perkins creates time-based land art installations composed of primary structures in wood and silk. Made on the beach in Fire Island, NY, the work employs a system in nature to explore the beauty and experience of weathering the vicissitudes of life. The “post-totem structures” start outdoors in the language of sculpture and culminate as nonsite wall reliefs with marks made in collaboration with nature. He believes that we all navigate totems and their historical and contemporary values to paint an identity either closer to or further away from his idea of a neutral existence. Growing up in Arkansas and then moving to New York he observed the tribes of the South and those of Wall Street. He studies the manipulation of objects, appearance and context in search of a social neutrality that speaks louder than societal tribal noise. He is interested in our shared beauty. We all live under the sun. Everyone has a horizon. Everyone has a sunset. We all have a body. Everyone dresses. The skin we choose. He seeks modes that embody the spirit of a beautiful neutral existence. The results blur the lines of sculpture and painting, figurative and minimalism, monumental land art and temporary works, masculine and feminine, human intervention and nature. The works initially appear as painted steel, solid wood, or even fiberglass, but upon closer inspection, one sees they are much more delicate. The hollow 2x4 frames are draped and wrapped in silk, semi buried or stacked to create ephemeral monumental works.
2013, School of Visual Arts, MPS, New York, NY
2000, Yale University, BA, New Haven, CT
SELECTED SOLO EXHIBITIONS
2017, Tempus Fugit, NYU The Institute of Fine Arts, New York, NY
2015, Speculation, Ace Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
2014, Ball Until You Fall, Cutting My Ties, WNDO, Venice, CA
SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS
2018, Points of Light in a Nocturnal World, curated by John Newsom, Metro Pictures, Brooklyn, NY
2017, Remnants, curated by Lisa Banner, Brooklyn Cluster, Brooklyn, NY
2016, The Weight of My Appearance, Reis Studios, Long Island City, NY
2015, AxA, MANA Contemporary, Jersey City, NJ
2015, UNICEF NextGen Art Exhibition, Los Angeles, CA
2015, MTV RE:DEFINE honors Michael Craig-Martin, curated by Peter Doroshenko and The Future Tense and music curated by Dan Colen & Nate Lowman, Goss-Michael Foundation, Dallas Contemporary, Dallas, TX
2014, MTV RE:DEFINE with Jerry Hall, curated by Peter Doroshenko and The Future Tense and music curated by Richard Phillips, Goss-Michael Foundation, Dallas Contemporary, Dallas, TX
2013, SVA Graduate Exhibition, School of Visual Arts Gallery, New York, NY
2012, 2x2, Eileen S. Kaminsky Foundation, MANA Contemporary, Jersey City, NJ
2019, Art Institute of Chicago, Studio Visit series curated by David Getsey
2017, NYU Institute of Fine Arts, Burying Painting: Event Horizon
2015, Yale University, 15-Year Reunion Speaker, Material Perception
2013, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Multidisciplinary Artists: The New Creative Norm
2018, Visiting Artist Residency at Trestle Art Space, Brooklyn, NY
Nicole Patel's work is informed by organic materials because they hold at once quiet humility and great importance. In working with these pure materials, she aims to work in a way that will uphold their full potential.