Village Voice art critic R.C. Baker recently spoke at the opening of a survey exhibition of the work of John Perreault (1937–2015), “It’s Only Art,” on view at Marquee Projects. Perreault was an artist, critic, poet, and teacher, as well as the chief art critic at the Voice from 1966 to 1974.
On John Perreault, at the exhibition “It’s Only Art,” Marquee Projects, June 23, 2017:
I’m going to keep this short and hopefully on point, because that’s how John wrote some of his greatest reviews. Let me give you an example of what I mean when I say that: In 1970, Philip Guston exhibited his magisterial cartoon figures for the first time, paintings influenced by Renaissance masters from 500 years earlier. Within a decade it would become apparent that Guston’s own masterpieces would join that pantheon and similarly influence serious painters for all time. Back in 1970, though, most critics — and too many artists — gave Guston terrible reviews. These first cartoon paintings were almost universally reviled. But one critic, writing in the Village Voice, saw something that almost no one else appreciated in those works. I’ll quote a few excerpts from John Perreault’s two-paragraph review:
“Guston’s new paintings are cartoony, looney, moving….It’s as if de Chirico went to bed with a hangover and had a Krazy Kat dream about America falling apart….It’s all in the service of a tragicomedy of errors or terrors. It really took guts to make this shift this late in the game, because a lot of people are going to hate these things, these paintings. Not me.”
If that is all I said about John tonight — that in those brief sentences he got right what almost no one else did, except Willem de Kooning; John and de Kooning got it right — if that was all I said, it would cement John’s legacy as an extraordinarily insightful critic. But how could John have had such insight when nearly everyone else missed the beginnings of one the greatest artistic achievements of the twentieth century?
One clue might come from the great underground filmmaker Jack Smith, who wrote in a groundbreaking essay in the late 1960s, “In [America] the blind go to the movies.” What he was charging was that film critics didn’t understand the medium because “film critics are writers and they are hostile and uneasy in the presence of a visual phenomenon.”
And so, as we look around these galleries, we begin to understand why John Perreault got Guston right, or why he saw in a young student named Ana Mendieta such astounding promise — we see why right here on these walls and on these floors. Because John was not uneasy with visual phenomenon. In fact, he reveled in it. Because John created his own visual phenomena — he was an artist.
For instance, what do we see in the painting Don’t? At first glance, those two elongated red globules might be twins, and yet it quickly becomes apparent that they are doing very different things. One stretches exactly from the top to the bottom of the canvas; the other comes up a bit short. This is visual poetry. This is the full stop of a period on one side, the pause of a comma — or perhaps the clean break of an em-dash — on the other. This is the rhythm of stanzas, the charming echo of assonance.
And then we have those two red wheelbarrows. I’m not sure the children should be allowed to see them in their rough embrace. These are found volumes — we know that wheelbarrows are designed to trundle around heaps of dirt or compost or what have you. John has destroyed this utility while creating a comical narrative that in its brawniness — to my eye, at least — brings the sheer physicality of an ancient Greek statue of two wrestlers into a garden on the South Shore of Long Island.
Or how about those yellow, right-angle drips in the painting around the corner there, which is called Three. This might be a modern dance, the troupe moving first in one direction, then all pivoting gracefully to another. Abstract, yes, but also a physical record of force and weight and velocity. And how much would John appreciate the way in which this painting is displayed in this gallery at this moment? How serendipitous is it that in a painting that is all about right angles and gravity, that in this charming — but old — building, it was necessary to put a small wedge under one corner to keep this piece level, something absolutely crucial to its concept.
But as John often said, “It’s only art.”
That statement is a wonderful, worldly wise view of this thing called art, one that John shared with Gulley Jimson, the main character in Joyce Cary’s great 1941 novel, The Horse’s Mouth, and perhaps fiction’s greatest evocation of the earthy, humorous, and at times fatalistic view of life I believe all truly great artists possess. I think John and Gulley Jimson would have shared a laugh at the way one of Gulley’s cardinal rules has been broken here: In the novel, Gulley says, “When I had my canvas up, it was two foot off the floor, which just suited me. I like to keep my pictures above dog level.”
Which brings me to what John once wrote of Andy Warhol’s — well, let’s use the polite name, Andy Warhol’s “Oxidation Paintings.” John said, “Shower queens will rejoice and others will be simultaneously attracted and repulsed. What could be better?”
And so, with this inherently human contradiction, we arrive at a discussion of alternative mediums. I mean, are you kidding me — toothpaste? Oil-soaked beach sand? Coffee?
When I first saw John’s coffee drawings I thought of an amazing show at the Drawing Center in the late 1990s, by another writer who was also an artist — Victor Hugo.
Hugo’s drawings, like his novels, are Romantic, gothic, overblown, and thrilling — castles in mist, a murder of crows surrounding a hanged man, a menacing octopus, and ultimately completely abstract vistas. One of Hugo’s friends said of his methods: “Any means would do for him — the dregs of a cup of coffee tossed on old laid paper. The dregs of an inkwell tossed on notepaper, spread with his fingers, sponged up, dried, then taken up with a thick brush or a fine one.” There is a wonderful sense of play implied in this mucking about in the dregs of the world.
And that is what you feel here, in John’s work—the world. Not just the art world, but this vast combination of things, of ideas, of culture past and present — of coffee grounds and toothpaste and polluted sand — everything was grist for John’s work. Or, as Hugo once said, “Great artists have an element of chance in their talent, and there is also talent in their chance.”
In a painting such as City, we are startled by the way chance and insightful skill and decision-making combine into a powerful, glowing composition. This is drips as architecture, a matrix of light and dark, civilization as abstraction. And to me, it is so beautiful how John, having made a life and a career for himself in the labyrinth of New York City — something that is not easy to do, as so many of us here tonight understand — John (along with his husband Jeff Weinstein, of course) then made a home out here on Long Island. And I think these two worlds are combined in this painting, both literally — grids blotted and ground down by sand — and also formally, in a way that borders on the spiritual. Because, as much as we are all denizens of civilization — of this vast network that makes art and culture possible — we are, before that, children of the edge, of that place where land and sea meet. This painting captures something so very much larger than what it represents.
So, ultimately, this is serious business, this thing called art and culture. But it means nothing if we cannot enjoy it, and John, through his writing, his poetry, and, yes, look all around here, through his art, through all the stuff that made up this singular, wonderfully expansive life, John left the world — and I’m not talking about the art world, understand, but the real world — John left it better than he found it.
“It’s Only Art”
14 Bellport Lane
Bellport, New York
Through July 16