Home: Reading the sculpture of Roger Perkins
A critique of the artist by Sean Hand
Professor of French Literature at Oxford Brookes University
'Home is where the heart is.' The cliche is given a fundamental twist in the work of Roger Perkins. Home as a universal concept, a habitat of objects and dynamics, a focus of individuation and sentiment, and an ethical and aesthetic constraint is returned to obsessively in his major work to date. The result is a powerful, sometime aggressive but always controlled series of statements, some acting as commentary, others more personally involved, of the affective and artistic consequences of placing one's heart in the 'home'.
The site of his work currently on display, then, can truly be called a home page. There is constant repetition and relocation of this archetypal shape, whether it emerges as buttoning the empty space, or nailing the landscape, or marking silence like a stele. The presiding sense is of an ordered and isolated spatiality, with a direct presentation and passionately affected materiality. It gives us the essence of home, stripped of incidentals and relativities. But it also comes across as a recalcitrant space, one resisting the hysterical dramas and dialogues of voyeurist art. In their presentation (and indeed re-presentation on these pages) then, the house shapes simultaneously suggest and challenge a series of symbolic significations, from the daily to the deistic, from the happy game to the sombre burial. In all this, there is a persistent feeling of deliberation, deriving in part from the shape's repetition, but also from a strong self-maintenance bordering on monolithic indifference to the inhabitation (including with kitsch and pathos) through which the shape might be dressed and domesticated.
This element of recalcitrance, however, generates a fundamental artistic problem relating to the plastic limitations of immutability as well as the negative effects of an emotional hardness. In a genial twist that incorporates a sophisticated if still controlled notion of related external forces, unclogging metaphysics with physics, Perkins turns the heat up on the stubborn shape, by refashioning it from wax, and placing it on a hotplate. This is most graphically displayed in the Blackwells series. The use of such a material and process give a significant new dimension to the 'original' artistic fashioning and the resulting reactions and speculations. Most immediately, the heat of activity serves to offset the finished and product-like nature of the determined shape, with associations of craft and collectability, returning the emphasis to Perkins' obvious abiding interest in the artistic process proper of making and unmaking. Out of this operation, though, a new set of shapeless ideas begins to emerge. As elements downplayed by monumentalism (temporal and structural instability, the affects of witnessing, etc.) become exposed as a contained indeterminacy, so the sculpture's organic cycle is re-activated. As miniature cenotaphs merge back into a more fleshy and mucal residue, like a return of the spectral presence within a resisted psychoanalysis of the art begins to form. These two sets of ideas relate, moderating each other's 'cold' and 'hot' extremes, through the way in which the colour and disposition of a hamlet-like tray of houses suggest a logical and ludic dimension (indeed the piece in question is entitled 'Chess Houses'), enacting as an objective correlative the entire phenomenology of persistence and demise, performance and perception. Each domain becomes re-invested with emotional charge, its material endurance read as a struggle with becoming-absent. The resolute de-facing of the work does prevent the evident tension and release being overly humanised as tragic, endearing, or pathetic; but it is equally obvious that the enforced dynamic has here entered a realm of symbolism that has little to do with art as mere line and everything to do with art as majestic lying. That is to say, the utopic modernism of a quiescent craft has managed to evolve through a resolute and partially autodestructive process into the recognition and redemption of real art.
In the course of this, the stripped-down metaphoricity of the shape worked by Perkins generates a powerful, pre-linguistic and ahistorical nexus of associations, not all of which the work necessarily manages or wishes to sustain. For example, in using the word Heimat at one point Perkins seems to reinforce a rather obvious, post-Holocaust, set of thoughts regarding these icons' containment and destruction. This analogy is given weight indirectly by the very resistance of the objects and their fate to historicization or emotional catharsis (in this respect unlike the work of Christian Boltanski). At the same time the culturally inherent desire to ascribe significance to these mutating monoliths, if uncontrolled, can generate a string of increasingly tenuous connections, running from the current voyeurist vogue for childhood trauma and banal domestic tragedy through to empty angst about cloning and ecology. Such mushy thinking is in part abetted by the aporetic nature of the pieces, their resonant resistance and metaphorical purity. But it is also exposed, and shown to require restraint, by the very materiality and construction of the pieces.
What I have called the de-facing of Perkins' art can be traced very clearly through a number of works not presented on this site, but logically forming his present preoccupations' apprenticeship. (It is perhaps logical that these works are visible here only by their absence, since it is through their sublation that an art and artist can be said to have emerged.) Several sculptural forms by Roger Perkins first appeared in public via his association in the eighties with the Oxford Artists group. Typical pieces of this period can be found illustrated in: the Sotheby's Decorative Arts catalogue 1 for Wednesday 4th December 1985, where lot 397 shows a figural sculpture made in 1984 by Perkins, clearly representing a stylised torso with a smoked granular surface on a stone base; the Artist Potters Now catalogue 2 of a touring and selling exhibition, July 1984-September 1985, depicting works related closely to the Sotheby's sale and including by Perkins another smoked torso, described in the accompanying commentary (somewhat tendentiously) as 'speak[ing] the same language as Iron Age, Pre-Columbian or early African tribal sculpture'; the catalogue 3 to the Oxford Artists Group exhibition at the Galerie Septentrion, 1987, showing a life-sized and highly representational female torso made from sawdust-fired clay. The context of each piece, where the hand-built unglazed body sits alongside the pottery of Alison Britton, Lucie Rie, or Bernard Leach, reinforces at this point in Perkins' work that closed relation between finished human form and perfected craft that epitomises domesticated and essentially decorative art pieces.
Significant to the later work, in my view, is the unambiguous heterosexual celebrations of these early pieces. Many of them expressly render an idealized female form; all of them equate the sensuality of facture with a traditional male erotics of gaze, touch, and objectification. Human presence and perfected form are frozen in a female torsion. These themes and their naïve enthusiasm are clearly subject to a destruction or deconstruction in the later work that is to be found on this site. Such a process for me really begins for me, however, with a key moment not represented here either. This occurred during a Polish Plener in 1993, which was located in a severely dilapidated factory (typical of a run-down Soviet-style economy) turning out sewage and rainwater pipes. On this single, intense occasion, Perkins made a series of tall pots from hand-coiled clay, each approximately two metres high, each taking six hours of work. The equation between craft and body is here already pushed one step further in the correlation between the object and the daily labour of a man making to his own height. Rejecting the finesse and prettiness of craft, each pot also foregrounds a rough integrity of surface and process, with the dirt and sweat of its industrial setting made part of the work's significance. Yet what these stages establish is merely the mise-en-scène for the work's defining gesture, one that significantly caused anxiety and bewilderment among the factory's workers: Perkins then dismantled the pots, carefully and methodically smashing each one, and collecting and disposing of the pieces. Freed from exhibition, the pieces were then able to refer more powerfully to their immediate context of labour, and to become an autogenerative statement for the artist.
In relation to the work that is present on this site, it is obvious how this process, its existential anxiety and resolution, its acknowledgement of time and work, of impermanence and personal reassertion, of the more rough exposure of virility's struggle with loss, challenges the earlier pieces and influences the subsequent work. In phenomenological and existential terms , we can say that the work has achieved in this way its 'ownmost possibility'. According to Heidegger, from whom this phrase is drawn, this is a non-relational moment, unsupported by 'concernful solicitude', that is to say experiencing an impassioned freedom towards death, one released in Heidegger's terms from the 'Illusion of the "they"' and in this case from the consolations of a collective and a craft. It is solus ipse. The deconstruction of the craft work here has built the death of the craftsman and the possibility of being of the artist's Dasein. The exposure of the pot's facticity, existence, and 'falling' is a staging and releasing of the Artist's Being. In the process I feel that Perkins rediscovers a number of related affects, including on an existential level the resoluteness of authentic artistic being and a reintroduction of the temporality of the process's discursive relation with artist and world, which the product of craft tends and perhaps needs to freeze and domesticate.
From a more semiotic point of view, we can also note how the Polish plener work recognizes and transforms the underlying presence of the Chora. The plener work in fact seems remarkably to conform to all the key ingredients of the chora as defined by Kristeva in Revolution in Poetic Language 4. Kristeva characterises the chora as a rhythmic space, which has no thesis and no position, a process by which signifiance is constituted, subject to a regulating process that is different from symbolic law but effecting discontinuities by temporarily articulating them and starting over, again and again. This recalls strongly the circular and powerfully pointless work of the making and unmaking of the pots. She further relates this via an interpretation of Plato's term of 'receptacle or chora' to a nourishing and maternal space that is pre-verbal and pre-thetic, and strongly bonded to the natural, biological and protosocial ordering of the body (and especially that of the mother's body). This in turn provokes in relation to Perkins' work a clear image of the emergence of the resolute (male) artist's body on the basis of his destruction of the (female) receptacle associated in craft terms with his former idealisation and representation of the female body. This presentiment is confirmed in Kristeva's subsequent description of the interaction of the chora with the death drive, describing the former as 'the place where the subject is both generated and negated, the place where his unity succumbs before the process of charges and stases that produce him' (p. 28), and the latter, temporarily arrested by this process, as marking discontinuities in semiotization.
This indicates in turn the psychosomatic dimension of the work, its externalisation of the (male) artist's anxiety and emergence, as dramatised via a deconstruction of craft. Erecting the pots before literally breaking the captivating feminine shell they otherwise would have come to be, as in earlier work, Perkins here seems to enact an unverborgenheit of the castration complex, that is to say an authentic exposure and vulnerability for what can then become through this ritualized breakdown the properly broken and truly signifiable artist subject.
These preliminary thoughts pave the way for a closer scrutiny of the images currently on display here. Presented roughly in chronological order and covering the last five years, their overriding themes of home and impermanence paradoxically seem somewhat tenaciously re-situated in a variety of institutional and geographical locations. The Blackwells series, dated 1996, includes amusing pieces such as a company of perky wax toothbrushes, as well as the memorable shtetl of slowly melting house shapes. There are several productive tensions at work here, such as the one operating between the material's oozy submission, and its technical and scopic location within an artistic Panopticon (another of the many subtle jokes in Perkins' work being the exhibition of this piece in an art shop's window). This (self-) disciplinary dimension is also suggested by the other pieces, where individual house shapes are dangled like a torture before an 'internal' as well as an 'external' gaze, or where a single supported wax pile disgorges its innards, or where those toothbrushes, for all their potentially heterological ability to probe and rematerialise the intimate recess of breath and voice, are still herded or gathered dutifully before their reflection. Such a strong dichotomy between the sensual and the structural recalls several passages from Foucault's Discipline and Punish, 5 regarding the rank and interchangeability of disciplined elements, the construction of hierarchized surveillance, the physics of power, and its internalization and re-projection via educational, medical, and other forms of training spaces. As with the Polish Plener, Perkins foregrounds this institutional context through the images' accompanying text, by describing the installation as 'Office Hours' and setting the heaters to operate for two weeks between the hours of 9am and 6pm, or by entitling one piece 'Daily Ritual' and obliging staff to get involved in the (de)construction of another, 'House Cloud'. As before, he also sets precise, pseudo-industrial conditions, involving timeframe and numbers, measurement and movements, materials and processes, within which a disastrous exposure of the domestic then ensues. One interesting effect of this ordered dissolution is the desire to personify and dramatize the evidence, to read it like a pocket Pompeii. The asymmetrical meltdown of the houses, and the puckered skin of their deindividuation, call forth imaginary dramas of violence and disappearance, intensity and loss. These transformed objects and utensils thus have applied to them an associative as well as a physical heat, one that generates a hazy thematics of incorporation, incarceration, or incineration, focussed on domestic drama as much as on world events. At the same time, just as their initial shape resists meltdown (it is amusing or moving, depending on your identification, to observe what remained in spite of all relatively unchanged throughout), so too at the metaphysical level the posed isolation of 'Chess Houses' or 'House Cloud' remains just that, housed and suspended, seeming to suggest instead a recusant ritual that co-exists alongside the more social ones of surrounding shoppers and browsers. The existential drama, in other words, is intensely personal, if metaphorically related, and this is nowhere felt more strongly than in the piece entitled 'House Column'. Constructed from a single column-like pile of melting and collapsing wax held within a hessian-covered scaffolding, it is obviously designed to represent exactly what is suggested by its title and the gradually disgorged domestic objects contained within and revealed through the melting process. What it suggests with at least equal force, however, is a very separate and personal rite, the support, lifespan, wrapping and liquefaction of an isolated yet public object, its internally lit demise, complete with seven intimate objects (some of which remained a secret), offering the spectacle of a wayside passion. Not for the only time, Perkins' art here draws at least subconsciously on the iconic force and cultural resonance of Western Christian religious art, with its own imaging of creation, destruction and transformation, its own votive rituals and spectral projections, its own inherent ethics of loss and love. In doing this, of course, Perkins' artefacts also expose some of that iconography's erotic and heterological subversion, and appeal to a broader public precisely through that symbolist drift wherein we amass a (post-religious and mediatised) set of cultural cues by retaining the image but abandoning the referent. Perkins' art is surely aware of this (as a cultural knowledge that can easily sit alongside what I suppose to be the artist's basic atheism), for the location of this waxy crucifixion in the window of an art shop in Oxford (and in Broad Street, of all places) with some grim amusement places at the foot of the cross the seemingly sophisticated but actually ignorant passer-by.
This subtle balance between an ostensibly direct impact and an underlying artistic and cultural knowing recalls the work of several other contemporary British artists, each of whom is also critically aware of the quasi-religious dimension of their art. One such obvious example is Damian Hirst, with his spectacular objectification of dualism; another is Tracey Emin, with her different but equally relevant and resonant themes of (sexual) abjection, redemption and transformation. (At the back of this strategy of hyper-performative surface and almost secretive underlying intent is the highly religious iconography of Warhol, but that takes us into a different area.) But for me the most suggestive and productive contrast to be made here involves the sculpture of Anthony Gormley. In an entirely independent manner, Perkins and Gormley work with similar existential realisations and artistic resolutions. As in Perkins, Gormley's idealized figures, with their considered if always genial deindividuation, manage to suggest the vulnerability and temporality of the body even while he casts his ritualized, existential (and religiously resonant) shapes deliberately from the most industrial of materials and to often monumentalist proportions. Moreover, one specific effect in Gormley, that again recalls the preoccupations of Perkins, is the equation directly established between the shape and tragic tenor of home and the exposed and vulnerable body (which is the existential first and last home). Gormley makes this explicit, for example, in his 1984 piece Home, consisting in a lying human figure in metal casing with a stylised terracotta house positioned over the head in such a way as to suggest crudely the human face. In a remark that both explains Gormley's metaphor and relates his preoccupations to those of Perkins, he has commented that 'the house is the form of vulnerability' 6 , thus drawing out in the process also the presocial and social paradox of the space, as one acting as maternal enclosure, but also as social gymnasium and occupier of space wherein the law of the father is rehearsed.
Returning now to the series of images, we can see at once how that sculptural appreciation of home as space in space is borne out strongly by all of Perkins' work, including the Cave Street and Krakow installations of 1999 and 2000. In the former, which in its brutal bareness occasionally comes across as a technical prototype, there is a starkly purposeful isolation and destruction of the domestic icon. Unadorned and uninhabited, the house shape is rendered again and again, in two and three dimensional form, opaque, solid or semi-transparent, posed and related yet locked in solitary confinement. A domestic detritus of broken and melted cutlery seems both exhibited and locked away in a group of barely differentiated yet uncommunicating chicken coops. In the violent negation of any other presence, the spectre of this social gymnasium is of course our own. For me, however, there is something that remains dead about this space. I feel that the same ideas work better in the more complex interactions of the Krakow pieces, where a wider range of materials, including text, helps to achieve a more dialogic proposition. There is an opening out of the black monologue of the (aptly named) Cave Street installation into a more discursive, and in this way aesthetically appreciable, ensemble. If Cave Street seems on first reaction the low point of a rejection, there are in the Krakow work more immediately discernible indications of a re-acceptance of sociality, including on the level of work as art. One obvious signal of this is the hanging on the wall of a series of waxen cups and plates bonded to a metal base, rather than a canvas, by the same process of melting. Like an irrepressible return, a subtle inhabitation of the bare space seems to occur once more, and to be recognised and even invited by the artist. Both the medium and the message, then, seem a little softened, given a more interrogative arena, wherein a possibility of negotiation and social resolution might once again be strained for. What certainly assists this process is the way in which these dinner-time disasters, these domestic Last Suppers, in themselves have an almost fleshy voluptuosity, a creamy solidity and indulgence that permits a generous trace of the human noise and heat so insistently banished or negatively suggested in the earlier Cave Street versions. For all the continued suggestion of domestic breakdown, and the attendant musing on impermanence, there is also here a re-awakening of communicational and creative dimensions in the attention given to the construction and exhibition of a eucharistic transformation, one that generates similar effects to Anthony Gormley's wax bread Bed of 1981. In addition to a trace of humour or human warmth is these pieces, there is also a delicacy of touch in the floor installations and their deliberate contrast in scale. What feels very fitting and therefore successful about this, of course, is that the theme of vulnerability is not contradicted here by being itself posed in brutal terms.
Many of the above themes are brought into high relief by the Grendon series of 2000. Grendon is a Category 'B' prison for violent offenders who have served time in a Category 'A' prison. Here Perkins works with inmates on the use of art as expression and catharsis. Pushing further again the interactive dimension of his work, Perkins has in effect reproduced for the inmates some of the conditions and obsessions of his own work, inviting and obliging it to be here inhabited by their own stories. The recurring themes of temporality, impermanence and home with which we are now so familiar are once again interrelated via a precise and intensely personal containment, on this occasion one clearly represented by the inmates' actual incarceration in addition to the pieces' formal restraint. At the same time, there is continuation of the process of reintegration of the work's originally non-relational obsession, subtly achieved precisely by having the work inhabited by the authentic narratives of inmates. The resulting inclusion of domestic objects such as razor, quilt and straw act both as metonym of the affective nature of home and as symbols of the home's inherent ambiguity and instability. A further effect is the foregrounding once more of that specifically masculine dynamic informing much of Perkins' work, given the male gender of the prisoners and their consistent concern both to maintain a dignity associated with (a fragile) virility and to realise their separation - here physical but obviously also emotional - from their family, father, child, daughter. This thwarted relational identity, and the maleness of that anxiety, in addition to the thematics observed before, are presumably the traits that attract Perkins to this enclosed order, and through which he obviously effects his own therapy. Paradoxically, of course, this truly incarcerated society offers Perkins a fundamental lesson in communication: within their de profundis situation, the texts become loquacious and longing, human ties are unambiguously desired and preserved, social implements are naively invested. The observer of this process is also drawn into the boxed dramas, straining to read the histories and empathetically extending their truncated lives. Perhaps because of this, Perkins' presentation of these dramas strictly eschews the ethical and is rather sternly archaeological, his control reflecting the institution's purpose like a mise-en-abyme of tension and release. The work, then, concentrates into a hard essence of encased narratives the usual themes of fragility, separation, loss and self-dissolution, against which a male anxiety, untutored if assisted, appreciated and valorised for its lack of and even brutal redundancy of sophistication, struggles to find a sublating syntax. Whatever one may think of the social politics of this attitude (one might see it for example as a version of the romantic masculinist notion for which Foucault's Discipline and Punish was also criticized), the starkness and heightened tension of this contrast occasionally results here in images of complete truthfulness and force, in the face of which further commentary becomes superfluous.
Finally, the Winslow installations of 2000 offer both an obvious geographical contrast, being the only works on display to locate the thematics of Heimat in an outdoor setting, and an equally obvious material shift, being both designedly permanent and more graphically confident. This seems to signal a further restorative step in the works' ongoing re-negotiation with sociality, notwithstanding here their marmoreal nature. As the accompanying text on the site explains, seven house-like columns, each constructed from a different building material, mark steps along a precise stretch of cycleway. Each edifice is also indicated by a synonym for house, these ranging from the neutral 'habitat' or 'dwelling' through to the more emotive 'sanctuary' or 'refuge'; in addition to which each definition is accompanied by a further plaque on the opposite face that records synonyms of that synonym (giving forty-nine or seven times seven possible terms), together with its dictionary definition. Perkins easily manages here to preserve his usual concern for formal, almost ritual, definition by locating it in an architecture that recalls public, official, and informational structures or signposts; and he places it moreover as before in a setting that appeals to a spectator potentially in literal transit as well as existentially on a journey. The external setting is also suggestive, though, of the funereal and spiritual dimensions that ghost their way through all his mature work, each of the houses resembling a grave or wayside shrine. But it is the strong development of text, however definitional and controlled, that seems the most significant feature of these steles. Together with a new and different interplay between permanence of construction and change of natural backdrop (as opposed to the opposite tendencies in earlier pieces), this seems strongly to suggest a relaxation of the private tensions of previous statements, and an attempt to reinvest an intimate and occasionally monotonous solipsism into a more public space and language. The way indeed seems here signposted for larger, more public, more confident statements of the themes to which Perkins will no doubt continue to return: those of home and its avatars, loss and transcendence, love and fragility.