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Whether making breakfast or working on a drawing, ‘it’s all art’ to Rachel Perry ’84.
By Amy Martin
onceptual artist Rachel Perry prefers to work at home. Home, in this case, is a grand 10th-floor Brooklyn sublet with sweeping views of the city. Much of the apartment resembles a museum, with ornate pieces of antique furniture, art and drapery tucked neatly into every corner.
The space seems perfectly appropriate for Perry, whose work runs the gamut of art forms, often blurring the lines between drawing, sculpture, video, collage, photography, installation and performance. Her New York studio (she splits her time between the city and Massachusetts’ North Shore, where she also has a home studio) is a spare bedroom. While small, it functions well enough for Perry, who oscillates between working on pieces—like the latest in her Chiral Drawings series, in which she uses her left and right hands to draw lines with found pens, pencils and markers—and completing life’s mundane tasks, like emptying the dishwasher.
“My work and life are intertwined,” Perry says.
Much of Perry’s work is itself a commentary on the business of living. On the spare bed in her studio are four prints of her latest work, the newest in her Lost in My Life series of staged self-portraits in which she is surrounded and mostly obscured by everyday objects like twist ties, cereal boxes, receipts, or in this case, fruit stickers—items typically recycled from life’s routines. In the oddly captivating images, the brightly colored stickers found on supermarket bananas, apples, oranges and other fruit completely cover the floor and the wall behind Perry, who dons sticker-covered clothing and blends nearly completely into a couch wrapped in the same pattern.
“Fruit stickers are full of information—economic, political, social—rich with suggestions. Where does our fruit come from? How do we brand nature?” says Perry, who uses beauty as a strategy to draw the viewer into the deeper subtext of the piece.
“I hope to make people see the world we live in—which we are consumed by—a little differently.”
While every piece of art has a story, Perry’s work can be considered like a series of chapter books. Held in numerous museums and private collections around the world—including the Museum of Fine Arts and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, the Baltimore Museum of Art, and the List Visual Arts Center at MIT—each piece has a layered history behind its creation.
Perry is currently working on an all-blue chiral drawing. What started as an idea scribbled into the sketchbook she keeps handy, “Make a drawing using your left hand and your right hand, in order to incorporate your whole body into the work,” was combined with another, “Make a drawing using every pen, pencil and marker that you own.”
“It’s about taking these everyday materials to the extreme,” she says. “Not just pens and pencils and markers, but every single writing implement in the whole household—I’m going through sofa cushions, desk drawers, my car, everything.”
Perry has made several dozen of these drawings, and also used them for a Lost in My Life portrait. Now, she is expanding the series by collecting the writing instruments of authors she admires, including Lisa Brennan-Jobs, Atul Gawande, John Cheever, and his daughter Susan. (Philip Roth also agreed to participate before his death; Perry has requested his pens, pencils and markers from his estate.)
“I tend to work in series in ways that are labor-intensive, reusing materials and reworking ideas as I move through the process,” Perry says.
At any given time, Perry is working on multiple projects simultaneously, a process itself shaped by the competing priorities of modern life.
“I started making art professionally when I had a young child. I found oil painting frustrating because you had to wait for it to dry. So I started working with materials that I could easily pick up and put down,” she says.
“A lot of what I make is an attempt to control the chaos of life.”
Perry didn’t go to art school until she was in her 30s, eventually earning a four-year diploma and a fifth-year certificate from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She was always an artist, she says, but it wasn’t until her own mother, a former senior research scientist for Polaroid, graduated from art school in her 50s that Perry realized she could make art her full-time profession.
An avid reader, Perry is fascinated with language, which she says is the underpinning of much of her work. She studied English and minored in French at Conn, although she points out she first attended the College’s Children’s Program as a preschooler, after her father, Professor John Curtis Perry, was hired to help launch Conn’s East Asian Studies program. As a senior, she finally began to explore art, taking courses with collagist Maureen McCabe, graphic designer Richard Lukosius and master calligrapher Charles Chu, whom her father had helped bring to Conn nearly two decades before.
After graduation, she worked for a time in advertising, but quit just before the premature birth of her son, Asa Welty ’13. Her first major work, which she completed while still in art school, was a drawing that involved transcribing Welty’s entire 645-page medical chart onto 23 sheets of 18- by 24-inch vellum. The deeply personal piece allowed her to explore issues of privacy and information overload, two recurring themes in her work.
One of Perry’s best-known works, Karaoke Wrong Number, is a humorous and poignant take on humanity’s fast-and-loose relationship with personal information. In the seven-minute video, Perry perfectly lip-synchs five years’ worth of wrong-number messages she’s received.
“I felt as though I really came to know these people through the process of listening, memorizing, paying attention to the linguistic tics and habits of their voices. They of course had a blind faith that their information was getting to the right source,” she says.
Now part of the permanent collection at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Karaoke Wrong Number made Perry a finalist for the 2006 Foster Prize. Since then, she has received four fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and was artist-in-residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. She is also a three-time recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Award for Excellence, the only artist in its history to win in three separate disciplines: photography, drawing and sculpture.
In 2011, Perry was commissioned to create a four-page pictorial essay for Vogue, and she has twice been commissioned by The New York Times, most recently as part of the #MeToo movement coverage. For that piece, Perry created several dozen brightly colored protest signs with familiar expressions—“Boys will be boys,” “It’s just locker room talk,” “Why didn’t she speak up sooner?”—and turned them upside down on her set. Perry, wearing all black, appears in the middle of the photograph, her face obscured by the plain white protest sign she is holding—upright—that bears the words “me too.” Perry captions the photo, “The world has turned upside down, and it began with one true voice.”
While #MeToo is decisively political, Perry believes all art is. As she explains it, “What I’m after is truth, and what’s more political than that?”
Halos, a series of constellation-like drawings each featuring 445 embossed, gold-leafed and numbered dots inspired by the gilded dots that form the halo in Botticelli’s painting Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist will be on display at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the fall of 2019.