Recording Timec:
The Paintings of Mark Perlman

by Michael Schwager, Director
University Art Gallery
Sonoma State University

Mark Perlman's recent paintings are a study in contrasts. Decidedly abstract and painterly areas gradually reveal intricately drawn images, suggestive of objects we may know or have seen, that surface here and there through the layers of pigment and wax. Agitated and roughly textured surfaces give way to smooth, almost delicate passages. At times dark and monochromatic, they also contain subtle portions of brilliant color. Yet perhaps the most telling and, indeed, central contrast embodied within Perlman's work is the issue of time. Like much abstract art, these paintings can be experienced, at least initially, in a short amount of time. But unlike many non-objective paintings from the last few decades that reveal themselves almost too quickly (Frank Stella's comment "What you see is what you see" comes to mind), Perlman's work rewards slow and careful viewing and functions as a sort of visual diary of the artist's lengthy and complex process. These paintings record time and take time to fully appreciate: the longer you look, the more you see.

Gradually building up the surface of each painting-what he calls "the underbelly"-over a period of six to eight weeks, Perlman alternates between broad areas of color and texture and more specific marks and images that appear randomly and spontaneously. As Perlman continues to work, images emerge, are covered up and, in some cases, re-surface once again, reflecting his long-standing interest in the dualities of "loss and dissolution, restoration and retrieval." In contrast to earlier work, in which these images clearly describe recognizable objects, the new paintings are more elusive, the images suspended in a kind of existential state, caught between the familiar and the things we cannot yet name.

It is a process based on discovery-both for the artist and the viewer. Perlman labors to "keep it fresh", always looking for that new image, mark, or combination of colors that he hasn't used in a previous painting. He freely admits that he is "never completely sure where each painting is going after it is started", and depends on impulse as much as conscious decisions to guide him. The element of the unexpected therefore becomes an essential part of Perlman's work, pushing the artist in new directions and inviting the viewer to follow or, better yet, to make their own discoveries hidden in the deep veils of color and lines, scrapes, and scratches that activate and energize the surface of his paintings.

It is also a process that requires almost perfect balance, much like walking a tightrope. During the course of making a painting, Perlman continually struggles to find just the right combination of image and field, dark and light, rough and smooth. There is the constant threat of "losing" a painting-either by pushing it too far or not far enough. As a painting nears completion, Perlman begins the final stage of "editing": opening up areas that have become too dense, painting over images that have become too prominent, agitating a passage that has become too pristine. The results, as evidenced in this new body of work, are paintings alive with a palpable sense of atmosphere and bristling with partially-seen imagery.

Like decaying walls or the dried skin of some mythical beast, Mark Perlman's paintings bear the physical evidence of their own history, a record of time that is mysterious and compelling and, ultimately, deeply satisfying.


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