Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Badass mamas, toads eating icy cones, sexification, and the disconnect that connects us all-- visiting with Rafael Perez

In the past three years I've often tried to think about what makes or breaks an artist for me. Is it their ability, personality, message-- or is it something more? With my recent Brooklyn studio visit with Rafael Perez, I think I've finally figured it out. What stands him out from other artists is the way his works dig deeply into my very soul, bringing out long-forgotten childhood memories, and things I love, as well as fear.

When I first saw his animal watercolor series, I might have let out a squeal of delight. To me, there's nothing better or more entertaining than anthropomorphization. But these aren't hybrids or genetic experiments, as is the de rigouer, but instead, they're playing dress-up as characters-- kind of like people in your everyday lives. This series brought back memories of when I was little at my dresser, putting on the clip-on earrings of my greatgrandmother, and holding my well-worn copy of "The Wind in the Willows," or "The Animals of Farthing Wood."

In Perez's case, his inspiration came from a love of the "Frog and Toad" series-- books I had unfortunately been unfamiliar with until now. Nothing makes me more thrilled than when I'm looking at Perez's portly toad licking away at his icy cone, in full-on '80s hued wifebeater (minus pants). And of course we ALL know animals never need to wear pants, right? Take a look at Kermit-- he was naked all the time, except for that collar. Here, Mr. Toad looks like he's watched one too many Jane Fonda workout videotapes, and decided to cheat while no one was looking.

Mr. Chameleon totally killed me as well. Could anything be more appropriate in comparison than the cranky old guy at the assisted living center asking for his third helping of Salisbury steak of the day-- (the nurses told him he could only have two). Being human has its perks sometimes-- in the fact that we can imagine what the creatures of our world would be like if given human attributes. But in the case of Perez's creatures, they hold on to their animal instincts a bit more. On top of it all, if you don't find this off the cute-o-meter chart, then you're just a plain ol' meanie.

Perez honed his skills at the Graduate School of Figurative Art in New York City, at the New York Academy. The school is well known for the rigorous technical ability of its graduates, as well as its emphasis on anatomy of the figure, but sometimes it's also known for the stuffiness it places on its students, almost enveloping them with a fear of taking risks. Perez has left that completely behind, and brings a dark humor into his works, as well as appreciation of the body that can sometimes border on quiet observation of the female form, or the blatantly sexual.

In his new collaboration with artist Amanda Barr, you should probably shield the eyes of the young, because it's about as in your face as possible. Here Perez completes the watercolor landscapes, and Barr the cartoony figures in the foreground. Breasts appear as dripping ice cream cones, penises and crotches sit at ready, all while people frolick in their garden of earthly delights. It's a nice analysis of sexual debauchery, as well as delicious humor kept throughout. The beauty of this work is in the freedom it allots itself to throw caution to the wind and celebrate the joy of flesh and human circumstance.

Perez is also known for his Dangerous Women series, with last summer's similarly named group show at DFN Gallery I reviewed on ArtCat. Hot mamas with hunting rifles and flack jackets congregate, standing tall and aloof, awaiting their kill. Long before Sarah Palin came to the forefront, Perez had already begun this series of works. But throughout the series there's a sense of disconnect or vagueness to the eyes of the women. They look fairly disinterested, as if they have bigger fish to fry, but at the same time are desiring someone to come in and rescue them as well. Of course these ladies are the same types who'd eat you alive if you chose to do so, so I'll just leave it as that. They're nice to look at, but you might not necessarilly want to know them on too intimate a level.

Finally, Perez is now collaborating with the poet Sierra Nelson on a series of illustrations for an upcoming project. I'm especially fond of the work Merboy, which seems to convey to the viewer its isolation, and freakishness-- struggling to come to terms with his being an outcast, but hopeful nonetheless for what may come his way. I'll leave you with Ms. Nelson's words.

Your Affinity is with a Blind Beggar with Mismated Feet

Come dine with me now, baby merman –
Hail from your dusty dive and drink
Deep with thine eyes our desolate sea.
Sideshow specimen chained to the ceiling,
Stop overseeing this tawdry human fate –
You were born for more than fortunes for a quarter.
Bone grin, dry scale, no you can’t have pearl eyes –
Yes, she’s forgotten you, laughs one-eyed Jolly Jack.

Tremble in cobwebs, Ye Olde Curiousitie,
Above the 10 cents (U.S. Coins Only)
Girl in a Bathtub Peepshow Girl Méchanique.
They hauled you in half-afraid, half-strangled,
Mermonster gasping at the bottom of the boat.
There was a high soft wail before the gurgle and pained grin.
Now your dry tears make a lucky souvenir.
Yes, she’s forgotten you, laughs one-eyed Jolly Jack.

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