Random Walks and Inner Paths: New Paintings by Jeff Perrott
By Francine Koslow Miller, PhD
—Jeff Perrott, in conversation with FKM, January 2012
Abstraction can function as a model of consciousness, similar to the way quantum mechanics and string theory model aspects of the real beyond ordinary appearance. The random walk method to me presents a consciousness of uncertainty, doubt, and vulnerability – blind, searching meandering. But there is also a kind of evolution, irony and even optimism in the movement of the line, seemingly in the shape of randomness itself. And I build on that with the momentum of the hand and in the interaction of color. So for me a random walk is a way of approaching and understanding the sheer contingency of life, while responding ironically in the quality and energy of the line. That line seems alternately bright, dark, comical, haunting, desperate, free, lost, giddy, ecstatic, sullen, heavy, light... It responds to what contingency presents. To me the method opens a new way to enter and experience abstraction—a third way, that seems to navigate between the cynicism and coldness of the so-called ‘anti-aesthetic’ on the one hand, and the generalized, formalist, positivist regime of abstract painting on the other.
By Francine Koslow Miller
February 14, 2012
Since Boston artist Jeff Perrott made his first Random Walks paintings in 2009, he has successfully appropriated mathematical concepts of chance as solutions to creating abstract paintings without ends. A random walk (RW), a term first introduced by English mathematician Karl Pearson in 1905, is the creation of a path that consists of taking successive random steps. Practical examples of random walks include the “search path of a foraging animal, the trail of a molecule as it travels in liquid, and the price of a fluctuating stock.”[i] In his latest series of Random Walks paintings, tubular ribbons of jewel-like color are the results of what Perrott describes as “the confluence of science and metaphysical forces beyond the will.”[ii]
In the new works, there are fewer convolutions of snaked color ribbons, which often filled the entire picture plane; instead there is more emphasis on the personality of the tubular ribbons and more areas of canvas left open as endless fields. In RW73 (Verisimile), 2010-11, the white canvas ground is allowed to breathe through and around Perrott’s dynamic coil of colors. Here, a panoply of colors converge in a twisted and undulating path where vibrant paint is allowed to meander, shrink and drip and still exist as a single line in a rhythmic path. RW73 embraces randomness while presenting a construct for vastness.
Abstraction is key to Jeff Perrott in his journey to explore the visual and to comprehend inner experience. These abstract paintings embrace body intelligence as well as the conceptual mind. Perrott’s paintings are squarely part of a tradition of abstraction that extends from early twentieth century Orphism (a name coined by writer Guillaume Apollinaire to describe the introduction of vivid color and nonrepresentation into cubism), to the controlled accidents of abstract expressionism, and the luxuriant poured pigments used by color field painters.
Unlike the emotional catharsis related to Action painting, Perrott’s painting practice is more meditative and labor-intensive. Perrott prefers canvases that conform to the body. As in the earlier Random Walks, Perrott allows the path of his brush to begin at an arbitrary point on a clear-primed cotton or linen canvas. Rotating a simple spinner from a board game, he directs each stroke of a large brush in an angle and direction randomly determined by the result of each successive spin. Subsequently, the artist plots a fixed length of travel. The slow process of moving the hand from point to point results in the creation of a thick painted line that moves along a continuous path. Each shift in direction is also accompanied by a color shift. The number of spins and the sequence and length of the colored segments are variable. Abundant variations of blazing oil paint mixed with alkyd resin result in luscious meandering lines. In each painting, the surface is treated as a continuous endless field; when the line reaches the edge, it simply continues that path at the exact point on the opposite edge, the picture acting as a torus.
For Perrott, the process of the Random Walks signals an embrace of the conditionality and contingency of life—of the universe itself and the chance fulfillment of being alive. While some may respond to what the artist refers to as the ‘nature of things’ with a cynical detachment, Perrott sees in it an opportunity for expansion and new growth.
For many of the images in the Random Walks series, Perrott takes an initial “walk” with a pencil in hand. The mural-sized RW75 (The View From Nowhere), 2011, begins, ironically, with a poignantly skinny pencil mark, which develops via a series of thin, gentle enamel marks, and finally emerges as the muscular, energetic line that marks this series. For Perrott, “…this movement analogizes the development of being in relation to its fragile status in the world, signaled by the line’s uneasy and often awkward place on the rectangle of the canvas.”[iii] In RW75 he even gives the viewer a reference to ground the view—a strict horizontal white-gessoed area, at the bottom of the broad otherwise raw canvas rectangle, that defines a stark, infinite, frozen landscape. It seems that this area is in fact a place from which no return is possible. The often rough, scumbled and dripped color marks affirm this sense of crisis. And yet, the eye, cycling through the energetic momentum of the line and its wild movement of color, finds a lifeline in the very movement itself. There exists a sense of purpose and vigor in the intense coloration that stands in sharp contrast to the existential staging of the painting.
Two other works—RW72 (Run Run Run Run Run), 2011, and RW78 (Lone Wolf), 2011—also feature this barren landscape conceit, and explore that desperate and searching, yet persistent and ironic, response to the sense of what Perrott describes as “placelessness.” The long-and-short alternating marks and high saturation contrasts of RW72 create an interlocking frame-like grid that opens awkwardly onto the frozen landscape. According to Perrott, “The viewer is invited to consider his or her own subconscious. RW72 offers perpetual entrance into the next horizon of promise, while still undercutting the limits of freedom of motion with its predetermined elements.”[iv]
For Perrott, the contrasts and contradictions embedded in the painting process, as in life, need not be reconciled. Art historian Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, in his recent article “The Chance Ornament: Aphorisms on Gerhard Richter’s Abstraction” (Artforum, February 2012) considers a similar operation at work in the venerable German painter’s recent works. “The chance ornament,” Buchloh writes, “…operates as a fundamentally irreconcilable set of contradictions within the discursive conventions of painting. Operating under the pressures on painterly abstraction, it recognizes and articulates the very extent to which similar, increasingly irreconcilable contradictions govern the psychic, perceptual, cognitive, and ideological dimensions of everyday life in the present.”[v] The chance process at work in Perrott’s abstractions yields a similar embrace of contradictory tendencies in art, abstraction, and life. The intent is neither to reconcile or synthesize them, but simply to let them be so as to open a viewing space marked by, as Buchloh writes, “…an infinity of subjective possibilities—totally aleatory and truly random in their applications, and once revolutionary and emancipatory...”[vi]
At issue, from the point of view of conventional sensibilities of art and abstraction, is the tension and seeming contradiction between the method and the result, between the cold distance suggested by chance operations, and the visual beauty and lusciousness of the stuff of painting.
Perrott’s more recent works explore this lusciousness directly. The use of clear primed linen as the ground of the most recent works further accentuates the tubular character of the Random Walks and provides a more sensual soft surface on which to work. The aptly named RW81 (Striptease), 2011, features a biomorphic colored image that resembles a boa sidestepping from the right side of the canvas. Beginning with a yellow segment that spills over multi-colored coils, the boa ends with a series of thin blue drips toward the left of the ground. Several segments are each comprised of two to three different colors or shades; the continuity of the colors are the result of carefully mixing and lining them up on the palette and loading all the colors on a large brush. Here, the line seems to pulse with an energy of its own, and the tonality of the beige linen canvas ground creates a dramatic contrast, in which, as Perrott says, “…the line gets energy from the nakedness of the ground.”[vii]
Gone here too are the trace pencil and grace-note enamel marks; there’s no build up to the three-inch strips of icing. In RW81, Perrott seemingly leaves his line hovering in a state of flux and unfinish, clinging awkwardly to the upper right quadrant of the picture plane. As the eye moves in to get to the rich color, the seduction of the paint works its magic unrestrained by the stark naked linen it’s immersed in. Does the line hide, reveal? Drawn in by the random walk of our desire, like the illusive promise of stripper’s revelation, we are hooked and stymied at once by that promise bracketed by frustration, underwritten by the emptiness of the desire.
Perrott’s titles are often suggestive of the contingent quality of desire, sexuality, and frustration—RW73 (Honeydripper), RW83 (Blueballer), RW82 (The Non-Affair). His colors and formal configurations are not only grounded in philosophic consciousness, but they also inhabit a sensual world—a world that exists in the picture plane and gets dramatized in our physical, psychical relation to it. Although Random Walks came into being through Perrott’s random walk for meaning, and exist according to a number of preconceived rules, his variations on a theme embrace chance, possibility, and the uncanny, and provide rainbowed umbilical cords to the infinite.
Francine Koslow Miller
February 14, 2012
[i] Random Walk, Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Random_walk
[ii] Jeff Perrott, in conversation with the author, January 27, 2012.
[iii] Jeff Perrott, e-mail to the author, January 30. 2011.
[iv] Jeff Perrott, e-mail to the author, January 30. 2011
[v] Benjamin Buchloh,” The Chance Ornament: Aphorisms on Gerhard Richter’s Abstractions”, Artforum, February 2012, p.178
[vii] Jeff Perrott, e-mail to the author, January 30. 2011