Ben Perrone (b. 1933), Illusion/Delusion, 2009; black paper bags and monofilament, 252 x 252 x 252 inches; Purchased with funds from Annette Cravens, James and Gloria Paul, Roberta and Roger Dayer, Michael and Anne Genco, 2009
Illusion / Delusion in Buffalo Spree
Sunday, November 3, 2013
On View: Perrone’s monument to loss By Bruce Adams Read more at www.BuffaloSpree.com
Someday a smart curator is going to mount a comprehensive exhibition of the recent collage and assemblage work of Ben Perrone. Starting late in life—he calls himself a short-timer—the artist has produced some of the most intellectually and technically challenging art of his career. Most of these ingeniously constructed large-scale sculptures and installations currently occupy Perrone’s vast studio and have only been seen by friends and acquaintances at the artist’s invitation.
Given the limited number of exhibition venues in town that are spacious enough to accommodate big works, it’s anybody’s guess when or if the public will see the bulk of what has Perrone’s friends abuzz. In the meantime we are afforded one spectacular glimpse in the form of Illusion/Delusion, a twenty-four-foot tall sculptural installation purchased by the Burchfield-Penney Art Center (BPAC) in 2009, and now on exhibit for the first time.
Perrone has a history of engagement with social issues in his art. “My philosophy,” he says, “is that artists should use their art, at least sometimes, to reflect or react to the society we live in.” Illusion/Delusion pays homage to the 4300 United States Armed Forces killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The sculpture employs thousands of small box-like black paper bags arranged in straight suspended rows that together form what looks something like the bow of a ship emerging from the gallery wall. Viewers are at sea level looking up, to powerful effect. Formally, the work is a triumph of mathematical reasoning, with its play of three-dimensional moiré patterns that change as you move. Dramatically backlit, it conveys a sublime and somber tone.
Structurally, Illusion/Delusion is almost impossibly intricate. The way Perrone tells it, the idea came to him literally overnight. “One day, I awoke at 5 a.m. and started to think of a sculpture and the whole thing resolved itself by morning. I knew how to build it and what it would look like. I built a small Plexiglas model, then a ten-foot version in my studio that [former BPAC director] Ted Pietrzak saw. He thought it was ‘elegant’ and, when I explained its significance as a war piece, he liked it even more.”
There are some obvious similarities between this work and an earlier installation of Perrone’s titled War Ongoing Project, which was exhibited at BPAC in 2010, and also uses bags as the principal medium. “We have a lot of associations with bags,” says Perrone. “Some kids once had lunch in them, then came home in them,” he adds, referring to the body bags used to transport war casualities. In both works, the bags contain individual names of soldiers killed, and the lines they form are reminiscent of rows of cemetery markers, or as curator Scott Propeack suggests in the accompanying wall text, coffins of deceased solders returning home. Propeack points out that, in recent years, a federal mandate has prevented images of flag-draped coffins from appearing in the media. Like the earlier work, this one is a potent visual metaphor for the enormity of our loss.
Illusion/Delusion is, however, different in one key respect from War Ongoing Project. The earlier work included numerous added components: music, video projections, wheelchairs, audio narration, and so on, diluting the impact of any single aspect. Illusion/Delusion, in its simplicity, relies fully on the power of modernist design to convey the message. The viewer is asked to do some contemplative labor here, and the work is stronger for it.
Illusion/Delusion also exploits the full potential of the soaring BPAC East Gallery, something the museum has struggled to accomplish in the past through various means. It commands the large room, which otherwise contains only ephemera related to Perrone’s past. Illusion/Delusion also stands in contrast to the widely hyped exhibit of grainy Marilyn Monroe movie star photos that were recently on view in an adjoining gallery. While that show seemed calculated to pull in crowds by serving up populist pabulum, Illusion/Delusion reflects the sort of regional excellence the museum should always spotlight.
Artist and educator Bruce Adams is Spree’s art critic.