Reconstructing Memory:  Factual Errors and Fictional Truths (On the recent paintings of Richard Perkins)

by Jennifer Dorner

Yesterday was a beautiful, warm and sunny July day. I left work early and walked toward Parc de Lafontaine which is about halfway to my place. All of the metal rooftops looked like flat matte grey chalkboards against the infinite blue sky. As I reached the park I noticed a helicopter stationed in one of the clearings. I walked toward the aircraft and a man in a light blue uniform stepped partway out and signaled me to come over. The wind from its propeller made it difficult for me to keep my eyes open.

I was drawn by the massive, loud and overpowering machine, pulled in by the magnet of my curiosity – to see the city from above. I climbed into the helicopter; it rose hovering up over the buildings and trees. It swayed and drifted, gradually making its way through the suburbs. Glossy blue swimming pools reflected the sky, yard to yard, decorating the elaborate grid of streets, cars and homes.

I moved closer to the opening to get a better view. The helicopter seemed to become motionless, as if suspended in one spot. My eyes stayed focused on a bright blue rectangular shaped swimming pool far below me. It was as if my body was gravitating towards the ground. I leaned further forward and rolled out, head first. At that moment it felt like time had stopped. Everything was still. My body completely disconnected from the world.  I dove down, falling, and falling, my sight fixated on the fast approaching pool until I penetrated the surface of the water, an abrupt shift into the cold turquoise depths.

The truth is I’ve never fallen out of a helicopter. In fact I’ve never even been inside of a helicopter. Although, I did grow up in the suburbs with a big blue swimming pool in the backyard. Richard Perkins also grew up with an “in-ground” pool. In his painted version of it (entitled Pool) it appears as though the deep-end has no bottom, it goes on forever.  As a child, the deep-end meant that you couldn’t touch the ground when standing, and that even when you dove, it was impossible to hit the bottom. Did it even have a bottom?  The memory of the pool, its scale and depth, grows and shifts with time alongside of the body.

As such, memory inevitably fails at being able to record events with accuracy and precision. Painting inevitably fails at being able to document events with accuracy and precision. However, painting succeeds at being able to depict memory. Like memory, painting is elusive. It slips away from the sharp lines and exact shadows of the outside world. Imagination fills in the cracks and gaps and allows for the mind to wander, travel and explore spaces that are built and shaped from little bits of truth.

As part of the process, Perkins builds three-dimensional models of objects, structures and architectural spaces based on memories from his childhood and recollections from his recent past. The models are small constructions crudely and meticulously built of paper, cardboard, papier maché, bits and pieces that are assembled to give a physical presence to the ephemeral recollection.  In other words, the model is a mnemonic device used to describe the mental image in “real” space.  The process of transferring the memory to canvas is laborious and circuitous. It moves through various stages of production from sculpture to photography to paint. Like memory, the mediated space of time and movement distances the recollection from its original state and positions it within a universe of strange and absurd detail.

The paintings contain recognizable fragments such as architectural motifs and expansive interior spaces. However, strange and unfamiliar structures and unusual colors are woven into the depicted sites. The fusion of warm familiarity with cool alien spaces incites exploration and invites the viewer to travel through narratives of their own making. The paintings are quiet with no sign of life, no evidence of human activity, they transcend time like an endless grey highway punctuated by small flashes of odd sights.  Like travel, the paintings pull the viewer from the flux of everyday life and present a situation where one might ask  “what would it be like to fall from a Helicopter into a bottomless pool?”

Depictions of various forms of space are transferred into two-dimensional environments that narrate intimate fictions.  They become vehicles of fantasy into which the viewer may enter to watch the story unfold. The story is in part about Richard Perkins; it describes the defining moments that stand out in his memory. These moments are a collection of objects, places and ideas; suburban swimming pools of his youth, giant water slides, imagery pulled from photographs and places that he has been. The story also incorporates a reflection on the aesthetic materials out of which the work is made. The paintings are based on the intricately crafted models and describe the history of their labor and construction. They depict the flatness of cardboard, the dryness of wood, the sheen of plastic and the coiled, glued papers; all of which have been amassed and documented for the purpose of composing the visual anecdote.

Perkins is creating artificial worlds that rely on truth and inversely error to illustrate the psychological atmosphere of memory. These worlds could never exist. Anomalous and imaginary, the shifts in perspective and scale allude to the uncertainty and instability of memory.  When imagination is used to fill in for the real, colorful and complex worlds emerge.  Sunlight falls into spacious, minimally adorned chambers, a warm glow illuminates monumental architectural structures that cast long shadows. Windows divide the outside from the inside and look out into a vacant space. The sky is a blue void, an empty backdrop as if to contain the constructed universe.