A line is a line is a line. But when the line takes a different course, or interacts with other lines, it gets interesting.
The sculpture of Jim Perry is a conundrum of parallel lines. His undulating totems are on view in “Maverick Parallels: Sort of Parallel, Definitely MOVIS,” on view at Artworks Trenton from Wednesday, May 6, through Saturday, June 13, with an opening reception Saturday, May 9, from 6 to 8 p.m.
“I saw Jim’s work in Princeton Artist Alliance’s ‘America’ show at the New Jersey State Museum last fall and thought it would be perfect for ‘Maverick Parallels,’ says MOVIS member Marsha Levin-Rojer, who invited Perry to be a guest artist in the show. “His tall wood totems gracefully and elegantly carry the parallel concept vertically from floor to ceiling, and we are delighted to have him join us for this show.”
MOVIS is a central New Jersey-based artist collective that meets weekly at the Institute for Advanced Study and comes up with intriguing exhibition themes, such as last year’s New Jersey State Museum exhibition “Boomerang.”
For “Maverick Parallels,” the “parallels may not always behave as expected: sometimes they appear in surprising places; sometimes they may seem to conform but then go a bit awry,” writes Levin-Rojer in a press release.
Perry’s works, finely crafted of walnut, mahogany, cherry, and cedar, seem to defy reality. In his sculpture previously seen at the Arts Council of Princeton Terrace Project, rectangular shapes come together to form curves that twist and bend. They loop into the air like dancers, they enfold each other like lovers, and they form vortices and spirals and suggest infinity. The artist himself uses the term “constructing space.”
“Parallel can be defined as having the same direction, course, or nature,” says Perry. “So I used this term as a jumping off point to create three individual pieces that are similar in appearance and correspond to each other.”
What about the Maverick part? It’s hard to think clearly of the word’s true meaning after it was co-opted by John McCain’s 2000 presidential bid. “Maverick means nonconformist, individualist, free thinker, lone wolf,” Perry says.
So, then, a maverick is sort of opposite to a parallel line that conforms to the slant of its mate. Leave it to the MOVIS artists to sort this one out.
Perry’s ideas may or may not parallel the viewer’s interpretation. “Regardless of the artist’s intent, it’s up to the viewer how to see it,” he says. “It’s exciting for me to create new work on this theme since geometry informs all my work with curved lines. I’ve been experimenting with geometry throughout my art career.”
The three totems — which can be observed as a single collection, though each stands on its own — are numbered eight, nine, and ten and made from African mahogany. Each twists 90 degrees from bottom to top, maintaining the parallel structure. The top is on the same plane as the bottom. Pieces overlapping in log cabin fashion are distinguished by darker and lighter tones — the wood is finished with tung oil, bringing out the beauty of the natural color.
Standing seven feet tall, the forms are solid and can endure expansion and contraction of temperature if left outdoors.
“I like the feel of wood, its plasticity, the way it smells and feels,” Perry says. “I enjoy the process of cutting and assembling pieces to create a finished form. The color and grain of wood captivates me. I like that wood is a living substance, comes directly from nature, that its patina changes with time. It is not a set, man-made material that never transforms with exposure to the elements.”
The process begins with a drawing, using an illustrator program, to serve as a construction aid. Although in the end we experience smooth and flowing lines, the process is complicated. No two pieces of wood are exactly the same throughout the piece — there may be a 100th of an inch increment in each layer in order to make it twist.
“I conceive the form in my head and then come up with the math to create the mechanics. It’s all predetermined, there’s not a lot of chance, and it’s always exciting to see it when it’s finished, to see it come together from a vision in your mind.”
Not only must he calculate carefully for all the curves, but for the balance. Each of the totems has the equilibrium to stand on its own but is mounted on a slate base to guarantee stability in a gallery setting, where passersby could create disturbances.
For studio space Perry shares a series of rooms on the lower level of his Princeton home with his wife, artist Hetty Baiz. One room is the framing shop where he mills wood and makes frames for Baiz’s work. He has also made shoji screens, a desk, dining room table, bed, and the kitchen cabinets. The warmth of honey-hued wood permeates the house. “He just builds things,” says Baiz, looking up from her own work.
Perry grew up in Erwinna, Pennsylvania His mother, Mary Stewart Perry, studied at Carnegie Tech and was an artist who made charcoal drawings and paintings. His father commuted to New York to teach religion at NYU. At 14 Perry knew what he wanted to do, and he started sculpting in high school. At the Solebury School he worked in marble and bronze and in 1964 one of his mother-and-child sculptures was accepted into the prestigious Philip’s Mill show.
After graduating from Palisades High School in 1966, Perry went to Bard College and made the first of his totems in plaster, 15 feet tall. “There’s something about these — I always wanted to go back to working on totems,” he says. At Bard he met Baiz, but she transferred to Cornell, and it wasn’t until six years later that they got together, living in a rooftop apartment on the Lower East Side.
In the early 1970s, inspired by minimalist Donald Judd, Perry started working on geometric and minimal forms. In 1974 his “shape that folds over itself again” was accepted into the Whitney Biennial and reviewed by Grace Glueck in the New York Times.
“I am also a minimalist, inspired by the simplicity of form to evoke deeper sensibilities in the viewer,” he says. “I try to hone down to the essence of form, to create, in the end, a piece that expresses something primal, free of adornment. I continue to strive to shape my materials into unified pieces of sculpture that are both simple and elegant.
“While I am ultimately interested in form and shape, texture and rhythm in creating a piece, I also love the process of creating a well crafted piece,” he says. “In this way I feel a kinship with the American sculptor Martin Puryear and feel that I am part of that art making tradition, where craft and aesthetics merge to form the complete whole.”
Yet despite this passion, Perry gave up sculpture for nearly 30 years to work as a graphics editor for Dow Jones, Merrill Lynch, the Wall Street Journal, and, for 28 years at the New York Times, making bar charts and other visual representations. As a struggling artist, he had been doing carpentry for Soho’s booming loft renovations. “I didn’t want to do carpentry the rest of my life, and sculpting was so difficult to make a living at,” he says.
Baiz went back to school to earn an MBA at Columbia, and the couple moved to Princeton, raising two sons and commuting. “It was stressful, the daily deadlines, breaking stories, and having to do things quickly,” he says. When he turned 60 in 2008 and the Times offered a buyout, it seemed like a good time to do something new — although it took a few months before he realized he wanted to go back to sculpting.
Through all the years, he had ideas incubating. “It wasn’t conscious; it was pent up and coming out in the furniture I made. When I started sculpting again, it moved along rapidly.”
After he completed nine works, Ruth Morpeth offered him a show in 2009 in her Hopewell gallery, along with abstract painter Steven Alexander. Alexander has a gallery in Houston, Texas, and soon Perry was exhibiting in Houston as well, selling a good number of works.
When the University Medical Center of Princeton moved to its new campus in Plainsboro, the hospital commissioned a piece for the lobby.
While Perry is a guest in the MOVIS exhibit, he is a seasoned member of another Princeton-area art group, Princeton Artists Alliance, of which both he and Baiz have served as president. Perry calls the group nothing short of fabulous. “They have a great sense of generosity. There’s no jealousy or backstabbing. We all care about each other, are friends, and share responsibility for getting shows and the work that goes into it. The work I’m doing now is a direct result of the feedback I get from PAA.”
Sharing studio space with Baiz is another way he gets feedback. “We invite each other in when we want feedback and stay out otherwise. We are each other’s toughest critics but also supportive. It works well to get a second set of eyes, and we haven’t killed each other yet.”
At Artworks Perry’s work will be on view with the MOVIS members, who have been creating and new and personal work.
That is especially true with Berendina Buist. When her mother passed away unexpectedly in Holland last year, and there hadn’t been an opportunity to say goodbye, Buist found herself taking up the wool left behind in her mother’s knitting basket. “I never thought I would find myself knitting but then it happened and for a reason. I titled the three panels ‘Not’ — it struck me that I could not find a better description for my mother’s absence. She was just not; not here, not anywhere.”
In her artist statement Buist writes: “The child and the parent, they are distinct persons and lead their own lives. But on further inspection they are made of the same material. The thread is the same, taking on different colors at different times. The feminine craft of knitting, a tool par excellence to contemplate the relationship, one stitch at a time, the repetitive motion an entrance to be the daughter and then to become the mother.” As she was knitting, she felt the warmth and the softness in her lap.
Frank Magalhaes’s “Umbria, Imagined” is a video of 16 photographic images from various locations in the Umbria region of Italy, enhanced by blending tonal variations of each image into a continuous stream of parallel views of the region. Each of the 16 video segments is made up of seven variations of the original image in which the hues, values, and color saturation of the elements in that image are varied, and each variation is cross-faded into the next to give a smooth blending of the changes with time, giving the viewer a feeling of sliding from one parallel universe into another as the video progresses.
Susan Hockaday presents a parallel version of the Dymaxion World Map created by Buckminster Fuller, substituting botanical imagery for the usual land masses. In “e pluribus unum,” using digital photographs, paper and wood, she reminds us of the origin of the Latin phrase: “Centuries ago, it appeared in a poem as a description for a farmer’s lunch of chopped vegetables and cheese. The bits of plants kept their identities while they blended to form something else. The phrase became our national motto, appearing on coins and documents, the president’s seal, passports, and other seals of the nation, to mean ‘out of many peoples has emerged one nation,’ or ‘out of many, one.’”
John Goodyear offers a kinetic construction in which the images appear and disappear on rotatable parallel slats; Eve Ingalls works across two and three dimensions in her large constructions that juxtapose the parallel prongs of a tuning fork and the scattered energy of the city; Rita Asch creates a lyrical sound piece inspired by the song of the thrush allowing the trills of the thrush to interact in parallel with the digitally-generated sound of the flute and the human voice; and Marsha Levin-Rojer offers a work from her Mandala series comprising wooden beads suspended in parallel, as well as a tape installation where a set of parallel lines seems to remain constrained as long as it can before breaking out into a burst of energy.
Another artist, Margaret Johnson, who died May 2 at age 97, is represented in the exhibit by her prints. The show has been dedicated in her memory.
Maverick Parallels: Sort of Parallel, Definitely MOVIS, Artworks, 19 Everett Alley, Trenton. Through Saturday, June 3. Reception Saturday, May 9, 6 to 8 p.m. 609-394-9436 or www.artworkstrenton.org.