At a time when things seem so unstable, artist James Perkins’ silk totemic sculptures ground us in the earth and celebrate the beauty of time and space. In a meditative process that can take up to two years, Perkins uses nature as a brush. He allows sea salt, spray, sun, rain and hurricane-force winds to withstand his silk sculptures – even burying some in the sand – unveiling dynamic, layered and completely transformed totems.
Following in the footsteps of earth’s great artists, like Michael Heizer, James Turrell and Walter De Maria, Perkins’ silk totems possess power far beyond their individual components. Despite a deceptive simplicity, earth artists create intricate and intriguing natural art to ask viewers to contemplate what they see and who they are.
Perkins’ work stands out from the greats as his time-based land art installations, which he calls post-totem structures, question the boundaries between sculpture and painting, monumental land art and temporary works, and the human intervention and nature.
Photography: Bryson Malone
Perkins’ use of silk is delicate and deliberate, yet his process transforms the sculptures into totems that possess the power to defy perceptions of age, form, power and permanence. A Yale graduate, former Wall Street analyst and magazine publisher, and now an artist, Perkins has developed an intellectual and moving approach that creates a powerful pull for viewers.
Much like his Fire Island, the Horrace Gifford-designed modernist home rises boldly above the Atlantic Ocean, his sculptures absorb, reflect and encounter the forces of nature. Perkins is firmly rooted here, which makes him the artist we all need right now.
Her exhibition, “Burying Painting,” is on view at Hannah Traore Gallery in New York through July 30, 2022. Here, Perkins discusses land art, process and belonging, and her Fire Island home. .
Wallpaper*: Your work is inspired by earth’s great artists, like Michael Heizer, James Turrell and Walter De Maria, as well as legendary sculptors like Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. How does your work engage with these artists and move the conversation forward?
James Perkins: Don’t forget Richard Serra! They were all my teachers and my best friends, whether they knew it or not. We have a long history of great painters and other traditional mediums that we don’t take for granted. New artists continue to paint and new viewers continue to engage with traditional forms and mediums.
But for me, the philosophy, the perception and the invention of the medium present the most exciting foundations of art. I felt land art was ripe for me to make a contribution. I wanted to try to be one of the first to explore what the next generation of this land art approach would look like.
Photography: James Needham
It was very important for me to be both involved in the discoveries of the great artists of the earth, as well as to make them progress. I feel that my work is successful when it brings your attention back to nature. They are monumental works, but they are not monuments. They are designed to be removed, to age, to change. And then I start again. Nothing stays the same. I’ve always felt like there was a little less ego in this kind of groundwork. I am not trying to claim a claim or false permanence.
Everything is biodegradable. I succeeded in making the earth the whole of materiality. Silk, rain, wood, salt, sand and even wind are literally part of the work. This type of literalness is grounded in a shared experience that we all have.
I love the concept of grounding and these works have been grounded to the highest degree. Their beauty is the result of their resilience, age and storms. Society has this experience of fading with age, but it’s the exact opposite. That’s when the beauty begins. These works range from outdoor sculptures to indoor paintings. They may even continue to change over the lifetime of a collector. It’s perfect. The work still works, documenting time and containing stories of change, of life.
James Perkins “post-totem” beach installation. Photography: James Perkins
W*: Many of your titles refer to opera and literature. How do these works inspire your art?
JP: Musicians and writers have greatly influenced me and my work. Miles Davis is my spirit animal!
Miles deftly navigated the space of not being black enough in Harlem and not white enough in Juilliard. He did it with this natural style and this pride, while innovating. The way he collaborated with jazz pianist Gil Evans and thought of space and time as a building block is very present in my work.
James Perkins, Tamarisk. Photography: Josh Marten, 2018
Moreover, Miles was also a futurist. He didn’t want to wait for the civil rights movement to end before he got a Ferrari. He wanted one now. I understand. My goal is to experience and contribute to the best of culture. There is no need to explain or justify their existence. Once you get past the time for this, you create space for yourself.
Opera librettos are also dear to me because they are still current. I can hear opera in pop and hip hop music today. Bohemian makes me cry when i see it every year. The life of an artist can be very difficult because we are constantly wondering how to live. Bohemian simply answers this question:E come vivo? Long live (translation: ‘How do I live? I live!’).
Photography: James Needham
W*: Your process seems as essential as the final product. What led you to expose your first work to the elements?
JP: I’m a process artist, of course. The process comes to me first before I do any sort of consideration of the final artifact. I feel privileged that my work conveys a certain beauty, but I believe it is only a mirror of the beauty of nature in which I am so involved. In high school, I studied photography but it wasn’t physical enough for me. One year, I swore to myself not to take any more photos but to continue to create.
My inspiration, however, started with an image I love of my dad coaching my little league basketball team. I was trying to resolve the principles I had learned in his coaching uniform versus my last uniform, a suit and tie. I created these sculptural works of basketball jerseys made from my old Loro Piana suits and Ferragamo and Hermès ties. My use of silk comes from my use of ties in this first work. I thought, “I can continue this exploration of material abstraction. I can go further. [Robert] Rauschenberg once said: “An artist’s material comes from his life.
Photography: Bryson Malone
Shortly after my son was born, I watched the sunset and thought of the painters, Agnes Martin, Ad Reinhardt, et al. I was impressed by their boldness, saying they were going to do the final paintings. I wanted to be that bold. I wanted to be so fearless.
As an athlete, banker, punk and intellectual, I have always questioned this concept of not belonging. I considered all the places where I felt I didn’t belong and yet I planted myself there anyway. Then, almost like a metaphor, I set up the silk and wool totems at the beach, a place where they don’t belong. And, yet, they belonged and, beyond that, produced something beautiful.
Your Fire Island home and studio is so special. How do they influence your work?
It was built by Horace Gifford, an incredible architect ahead of his time in design and durability. He was a beautiful creator with a very subversive activism that appeals to me. He was a master at abstracting notions of expected form like Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix or Balenciaga’s Demna.
Fire Island Studio designed by James Perkins’ Horace Gifford. Photography: Tom Sibley
I am constantly looking for strategies of freedom that allow you to be fully yourself, not limited by the identity projections of society. Gifford was on Fire Island to find freedom, like many gay people at that time. When describing the cantilevered closets found in his homes, he once commented, “I’ll give you the most beautiful closets to pull out.”
I like this lightness and this use of beauty to combat ugliness. Sometimes you have to fight to keep a little lightness and joy. It is important to me that his legacy is known as well as that of the innovations of the artists of the earth despite the struggle. The spirit of Fire Island is equally brave. Our residents are tough as we are on a barrier island absorbing the full force of the storm before it hits the mainland.
Fire Island is my Marfa. And, like Marfa, I hope one day to build a place beyond my studio where my sculptures can be seen in their natural element, the place that made them, and me, who we are. §
Detail of Tamarisk2018, by James Perkings. Photography: Josh Marten