Beth McEachan: Richard Perkins, “The City”

Cambridge Galleries (December 2005); Rodman Hall (runs until March)

Reviewed by Beth McEachen

The unsettling ‘alternative reality’ of Richard Perkins’ large-scale paintings is no surprise, given the process of their making.  Perkins, a Canadian who now lives in Massachusetts, builds models of architectural interiors based on memories which he then uses as scenarios for his psychologically-loaded paintings.  This quietly engaging exhibition, titled ‘The City,’ includes some of the models and small oil studies. The work is without apparent sentimentality or nostalgia, instead mining the poetic possibilities of the function and construction of memory.

Most of the paintings feature cavernous, soaring interiors, some with enigmatic forms as the focal point, but none with human presence.  These mysterious spaces appear to be inspired by abandoned industrial sites, sci-fi movies and modernist buildings. The colours used are sombre but theatrical, and blue is favoured, as pools (for swimming and of the industrial or chemical sort) and glimpses of sky appear in most of the paintings.

The pools are smoothly painted, describing still, deep water, suggesting the unconscious mind.  In “Pool,” the deeper area of the empty swimming pool appears bottomless, and there are no ladders or steps for climbing out, just a diving board.  The pastel slats surrounding the pool recall Impressionism, as does the dappled light that gives the image a serene but chilly silence. “Waterslide” is also perplexing, with a murky sky visible through the tall windows.  Again, there is no means of climbing out of the small pool. The slide itself is steep and rickety, and there are no steps leading to the top, which is cropped out of the picture.

The most compelling work here is also the most mysterious, reminding one of surrealist works such as Magritte’s ‘L’Anniversaire,’ and Giacometti’s ‘The Palace at 4 am.’  “The Final Construct” is a moody tour-de-force that looks like a set from the movie Alien but must refer to an earlier series titled “Constructs.” This series featured highly modeled, multifaceted forms isolated on flat coloured grounds.  Now the spherical, embryonic ‘construct’ is in a purple, high-ceilinged space with watery floors and bridges connecting it to the walls. It is teeming with imagined action. “Untitled” and “Balloon” also feature ‘constructed’ forms, and their elusive meanings are matched by their visual impact.  Framed by a doorway opening onto a bright courtyard, the turd-like ‘balloon’ is held up by stakes and rods. Despite the yellow basket-chair hanging from it, the balloon is leaden. In “Remembering Eva” an inflated rubber balloon paradoxically hangs upside-down from a skylight. Its colour and perfectly circular shape liken it to a full moon in the hushed, nighttime interior.  The title is introspective, referring blatantly to the personal associations that are imperative to the entire series.

At Rodman Hall four of the models were shown dramatically spotlit in darkened rooms upstairs from the main gallery.  The models are rough-hewn, made from unembellished materials like fomecore, cardboard and messy hot glue. The contrast to the skill shown in the paintings is evident.  It is as if the models are groggy bits of remembered dreams and the paintings create emotional and poetic tenor from these glimpses.

The models are constructions of the artist’s memory but the paintings act as sites for the viewer’s imagination to inhabit.  The exhibition’s title, “The City,” reveals the metaphor that the series is built upon: memories are constructions of the mental sort.  In the labyrinth of one’s mind are the many rooms, empty factories, saggy walls, sunny courtyards, deep pools and all the other inexplicable occurrences of the built environment we call a city.  And sometimes there are also windows, opening out onto the infinite possibility of the sky.