Catalog essay for the exhibition

JAMES PERRY: Recent Sculpture

Gremillion & Co Fine Art, Houston, 2013

JAMES PERRY: Constructing Space

“The perception of space is a primary natural sense which belongs to the basic senses of our psychology… Our task is to penetrate deeper into its substance and bring it closer to our consciousness.” Naum Gabo 1937

Naum Gabo and his Constructivist colleagues liberated sculpture, just as Malevich, Kandinsky and Mondrian liberated painting, from the tyranny of mimesis and centuries-old conventions that placed the human form and mind in a position of primacy over the rest of nature, and that prescribed the acceptable subjects and appearances of works of art. Out of the industrial displacement, revolutionary turmoil and military annihilation of the early years of the 20th century grew a new perspective, a recognition of the limits of conventional assumptions, an embrace of a vast and more inclusive reality. The artists at the forefront of this new attitude sought to re-invest art with universal spirit, a depth of feeling that taps into streams of resonance that are much larger than human emotion. They sought to achieve an art of purity not through imitation of nature’s appearances, but through embodiment of nature’s dynamic energy.

Their aesthetic breakthroughs a century ago served to re-connect art making with its primal origins in shamanic practice, and profoundly affected the trajectory of art’s development to the present day. That important turning point in history provides a fitting context for consideration of James Perry’s remarkable sculpture, for Perry shares so many of the impulses that drove those artists to redefine the nature of the art object and the art making process.

Central to the Constructivist aesthetic, and to Perry’s, is the symbiotic relationship between the materials and the form of the work. Rather than carving images out of marble or casting modeled images in bronze, the preferred process is one of assembly, honoring the particular attributes and aesthetic qualities of the chosen material, and allowing those attributes to determine, to the greatest possible degree, the form of the sculpture. Rather than the artist dominating his material through sheer physical force, he plays the role of collaborator, mediating between material and concept by means of process.

James Perry’s chosen material is wood -- walnut, mahogany, cherry, cedar -- beginning with industrially manufactured planks from the lumberyard. The rectangular boards are then cut into small rectangular strips that are arranged and assembled like building blocks into three-dimensional forms. This is of course a gross oversimplification of Perry’s intricate process, which involves exacting mathematic calculations and exquisite craftsmanship, combined with an instinctual sense of shape and space. By varying the thickness of each strip of wood in minute increments, he creates shapes that curve and twist, that push out and pull in, that both contain and activate space in surprising and dynamic ways.

Perry embraces his process as more than a means to an end; it is a visible aspect of the work, the mechanics of its making worn on the outside. In Perry’s sculptures, we see every strip of wood, every angle, every joint that makes up their construction. Close inspection allows us to trace the minuscule dimensional shifts that cause the form to shrink or swell or bend dramatically. The corner joints are revealed as tiny dark rectangles that make percussive reiterations of the outer edges, a steady cadence that traverses the perimeter of the piece and emphasizes the modular nature of the work’s construction. We see the subtle color shifts of the natural wood grain, the thin strips stacked to articulate the total form in cross-contour, like staccato notes whose varied tones modulate and coalesce into a wave of sound.

Perry’s configurations are not so much invented as arrived at, or intuitively coaxed out of his materials and his process. Some configurations seem relatively simple and direct, as in Circle Game #1, 2011, which is a slightly twisted circular form that is broken at the top where the two ends are offset by the twist, leaving a small opening. But what at first looks elementary is complicated by the fact that the form is larger at one end than the other, making the top opening operate as a pressure point, like a valve, that not only activates the broken space with torqued energy, but creates a subtle tension between the regularity of the outer circle and the oblong shape of the contained negative space.

Sometimes the configuration assumes an animated complexity, as in Emergence, 2011, a writhing spiral that rises to attention and tapers at one end, exuding a flexibility that disguises the brittle rigidity of its material. We can almost feel the musculature of the form as it lifts up from its restless coil to slice the space above, a testament to Perry’s playful imagination and consummate skill.

A different, portentous presence is achieved in Perry’s largest and most ambitious piece to date, Fire Junction, 2010. This tour de force work is composed of two tall tapered crescents that rise and twist in opposite directions, meeting in the middle of their expanses to create a curving X. Standing 74 inches high, and stained black, Fire Junction is loaded with cultural and psychological associations, and charges the space around it with powerful tensions. The surface, with its dark stain collecting in every seam, gives the piece the mysterious air of a charred relic. The two crescents, at once coming together and pulling away, engage in an ambiguous dance of duality, ultimately becoming both the object occupying the space, and the point at which the surrounding space converges.

We sense in these works a connection to the most primal impulses of our nature, a penetration through the veneer of appearances into the substance and dynamics of space. Embodied in the graceful curves, torqued tensions and sensuous materiality of James Perry’s sculpture is a fundamental process of transforming feeling into form, and a perpetuation of our ancient fascination with the very nature of being. Beautifully crafted physical articulations of the ineffable, Perry’s wondrous configurations expand the dialog between us and the world around us, and indeed bring the world of essences closer to our consciousness.

Steven Alexander 2012