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Flux: Joan Perlman
David Cunningham Projects


by Dale Tegman
San Francisco Art Magazine   May 2008

Determining the color of water constitutes an archetypal artist's choice. A vacation ocean churns blue. A fouled Yangtze flows brown. Niagara clouds white and cold and its rainbow issues iridescent. Where, one might ask Joan Perlman, does black come in?

The inspiration for Perlman's painted black gurgles from Iceland, the world's youngest country geologically. If ever an expanded potential for the color of water existed it would be there. In addition to glaciers, rivers, oceans and lakes, Iceland also moves with volcanic activity.

"Flux", which opened May 22nd at David Cunningham Projects, exhibits eleven of Perlman's untitled acrylic and enamel creations, along with a three-channel video installation, "From Ice", soundtracked by Steven Dye. The success of "Flux" resides in its desire to present us at once with a reliable Nature and an understanding of why we crave it. Perlman lives in Los Angeles, a destination in mourning over the contraction of its natural beauty. The automobile centered development that built California's largest city up, physically and emotionally, also slowly tears it down. Smog may enhance the end-of-the-continent sunsets but they are difficult to breathe through. The fossil fueled process of global warming worsens the spring rains as well as the summer brush fires. By contrast, the relatively unadapted landscapes of rural Iceland cohabitate easily beside developed, technology friendly Reykjavik. What exactly do the Icelanders know that the Californians don't?

Perlman's initial engagement with Iceland was through a long meditation upon its folk literature. She visited in 1995. She returns frequently and will occupy a new residency at Iceland's Baer Art Center this summer. For these reasons, rather than being escapist, her work has a quality of a quest.

An encounter with the video installation "From Ice", situated in the Project Room at the back of the gallery offers insight to the show. A video of rapidly moving water from a melting ice cap first occupies three screens, then two, then alternates as scenes transition. The changes of texture intend to present viewers with good shot selection and editing. How instructive, however, that even eight minutes with a river must be thus pointed and manipulated for the urban viewer. Off screen, the ice cap melts perpetually, with or without our approval.

An imposing "Untitled 2007" (Work 5) dominates the back wall of the DCP gallery. At the right of the canvas, black and putty latex suggest a landform drowned under waterfall sheets of white, black and blue. Immediately beside it, "Untitled 2008" (Work 4) offers black web work and a similar clarity in its presentation of ripples in a small pool. A human-made depiction of the environment constitutes beauty even as it hints at the environmental destruction necessary for its creation. Perlman's blacks present themselves to the viewer neutrally, without antagonism, as peer to the water we recognize aesthetically in blue and white.

"Untitled 2007" (Work 9) dashes over duralar in all directions, drizzling and washing itself under splashes of black. The underlying lattice of sepia demonstrates deliberation. Perlman is working from memory. Only a perspective slightly above the action indicates a natural vista. Subsequent work grows more interior. "Untitled 2007" (Work 1), looks equally foreign and homey. Perlman's sculptural element remains subtle even as she presents evidence of her hand. Those familiar with Scandinavia may sense its earthy modesty - demonstrably brave if reluctant of per formative gestures.

Taken representationally, the placid "Untitled 2008" (Work 2) could be a glacier or an iceberg or rapids. A swell of green appears to be its subject rising through white like the beacon of an alien lighthouse. In this, Perlman recalls her contemporary Maria Friberg, educated in Iceland, whose sexually complex 1999 "Blow Out" depicts a small bald man bobbing in the white foam wake of a giant wave. What appears to be turned under here bobs up again, coolly living.