The Failures of an Artist Versus the Failures of America

by Alicia Eler on December 27, 2012

Paul Perkins at Peanut Gallery installation shot (All photos by author)

Paul Perkins, “Dead Heat” at Peanut Gallery installation shot (All photos by author)

CHICAGO — Artist Paul Perkins sees the problems created by capitalism. But, instead of providing subtle critique or some perceptive angle or even a conversation starter, he regurgitates what we already know. Perkins’s exhibition at Chicago’s Peanut Gallery attempts to tackle American capitalism through three-dimensional sculptures and sculptural paintings made of dollar-store materials. Perkins depicts Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme, the killing of Treyvon Martin, Captain America’s downfall, attempts at winning the lottery, and the sad characters of Sesame Street.

Paul Perkins, "Last Supper" (2012)

Paul Perkins, “Last Supper” (2012)

Perkins presents portraits of the obvious without inserting anything for the viewer to gnaw on or even think about. It’s like taking a bite out of a candy bar that one knows was produced by underpaid workers in a factory in middle America, and just swallowing it and saying “hey dude, that was pretty tasty even though where it came from is fucked up!” instead of spitting it out and questioning where it came from and what that means for America.

Perkins’s work embodies the helplessness that many of us feel, so there are moments of identification between the broke artist and the viewer through the artwork on display. That’s something, but why isn’t there anything more? A few questions that might have led Perkins to dig deeper: Could you talk a bit more about the history of Ponzi schemes in America? Why did the killing of Treyvon Martin cause such a stir? And more importantly, have you ever tried playing the lottery? If so, what was that like? If Perkins had thought a bit more about some of these questions instead of sensationalizing the biggest media crazes of the last three years, perhaps this work wouldn’t haven fallen completely flat.

In the tasteless work “Last Supper” (2012) (shown above), Perkins uses two throwaway materials of consumer culture — cellophane and construction paper — to produce an approximately 10-foot-tall by six-foot-wide collage of Treyvon Martin holding a bag of Skittles and a pop drink (for the record, Trayvon was drinking an iced tea, not pop). To make sure even the slowest of viewers understands this completely unsubtle message, he changes the label SKITTLES to the word “HELP” and the label on the pop can says “ME.” Yes, this was Treyvon’s last meal before he was shot by a neighborhood patrolman in Florida. His death was another injustice to African-American men and the black community. But seriously, what does Perkins’ have to say about it? Plus if this were really a last meal, why wasn’t Treyvon at a long table with fellow saints and holy folk? A feeling of hopelessness, the misrepresented ripping off of art history, and poor taste looms around this piece, which is presented as the show’s principal focus.

Paul Perkins, "No Eres un Ganador" (2012)

Paul Perkins, “No Eres un Ganador” (2012)

“No Eres Un Ganador” (2012) embodies a similar sentiment. Perkins collages the text “NO ERES UN GANADOR” (“You are not a winner”) around a golden lottery bucket with a rainbow flowing out of it. As if the piece weren’t already depressing enough, Perkins creates a curvy pink border along the edges.

Perkins also creates a life-sized, headless Captain America sculpture aptly titled “You’re on Your Own” (2012). The super hero’s moment is over; he may as well blow himself up. Grover makes an appearance in this show, too. Two, in fact! The most mysterious piece in the show, “My Blue Monster” (2012) is pretty much just a cellophane and construction paper sculpture of Grover. In another moment, perhaps a flashback to the past, Perkins collages the likenesses of younger Grovers onto a flat surface. One sits with his legs open while the other gazes longingly at the space between. This piece is called “Lunch Time” (2009). At least the artist didn’t make it three-dimensional.

Paul Perkins, "My Blue Monster" (2012)

Paul Perkins, “My Blue Monster” (2012)

Perkins’ use of dollar store materials and keen capture of the 24/7 news cycle’s most sensationalized moments is a good start to what could have been a smart critique of American consumer culture. Unfortunately, the artist went so lowbrow with this show that it ends up looking more like a sad kid’s birthday party craft activities. Sorry, sport, mom is not going to post these on the fridge.

Paul Perkins’s Dead Heat runs through January 12, 2013 at Peanut Gallery (1000 North California Avenue, Chicago).

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  • Kate Rhoades

    Damn, bro.

  • Jeffrey Beebe

    Trayvon Martin wasn’t shot by a cop. He was shot by a neighborhood patrol volunteer, George Zimmerman.

    • Alicia Eler

      Thank you. Corrected.

  • Zach Alan

    oh snap !!! thank you for the best laugh I’ve had all morning, seriously

  • Federico Alvarez

    Small correction from a spanish speaker: “no eres un ganador” actually translates to “you are not a winner”. Good review.

    • Alicia Eler

      Thanks, Federico. My bad!

  • Benjamin Edelberg

    Hi Alicia, I have so much respect for this site but this review is simply
    depressing. There are hundreds of galleries in Chicago and dozens of
    shows that get zero recognition. You have selected an easy target. I do
    not see any other motivation within this article except having fun
    playing critic. I also want to mention that I have enjoyed some your
    previous reviews (especially Queer Art’s not Just About Gender).
    However, this is a waste of space. While reviewing the Peanut Gallery
    site, I noticed that Emre Kocagil has a show opening during Feb 2013 at the
    same space. It looks like a strong show but are you going to visit it as well? I am definitely going to attempt to forget your comments and walk through the exhibition with a fresh perspective.

    • Hrag Vartanian

      I wanted to let you know that Alicia told me she will not be online for very much during the next few days so it might take her a little while to respond. I also know as an art critic sometimes it is good for us to take on shows we normally don’t review as a form of exercise — as in working out a muscle we haven’t worked out for a while. Thanks for chiming in.

    • Alicia Eler

      Dear Benjamin, thank you so much for your sincere comment. Please enjoy the show. When you return from the show, please come to this article and post your review. I look forward to reading it. Maybe you will be able to write something positive about it.

      Art criticism is an exercise in critical thinking. I sat on this review for an entire week (just ask Hrag!) before finally writing it. I really wanted to like it. Like, REALLY REALLY. Much of my arts writing focuses on work that in some way engages with or critiques pop/consumer culture, so this show was right up my alley. I picked it because I wanted to write about it. I did not seek out what I thought would be a bad show and then write an easy, negative review. I sought out what I thought would be a smartly curated array of critical, thought provoking sculptural objects. Perkins used dollar store materials to regurgitate media sensationalism; he purchased these at stores that symbolize the same consumer culture that so frustrates him. I really liked this idea. But he provided nothing else except additional visual stimulation and, essentially, a waste of my time. It was such a bummer to see an artist get into interesting territory, but then fall back onto old, tired tropes instead of really delving into this work. Negative criticism is important, and also very hard to write.

      I have been covering art in Chicago for nearly six years. I am engaged with and support the local art community and apartment galleries such as The Peanut Gallery. I am on multiple art community boards and do as much as I can to support local, artist-run projects and spaces. I volunteer with the Chances Dances’ Critical Fierceness Queer Art Grant; we award money to queer artists, with a special offering to queer artists of color through the Mark Aguhar Memorial Fund. I am also a volunteer with ACRE Projects and Residency; I will curate four shows in April-June 2013 which is mostly just with the altruistic purpose of helping YOUNG, EMERGING ARTISTS. Please, come to them and say hello. Then tell me about yourself.

      Mr. Perkins’s show absolutely sold itself short. I wish him nothing but the best, and look forward to seeing his follow-up exhibition.

      Best wishes,
      Alicia Eler

  • James Jankowiak

    This is a rant, not criticism.

    • Alicia Eler

      James, hi! Please provide your criticism below then. Look forward to it. Regards, A

  • David Brian Dobbs

    We need more criticism like this. This work is just BAD. BAD all the way around. Poor quality and poor taste. Looks like a teenager made this work. Like it would be something an angry kid in high school would make without thinking about consequences or context. Great review though.

  • Jacqueline K Segura

    I like the work. I think it is tacky,which I enjoy. So what if the show “has no meaning.” Art does not have to mean shit.

    • Alicia Eler

      As an art critic, my entire purpose is to look for meaning. If you produce work that means nothing, why are you making anything at all? And if it means nothing at all, AT LEAST MAKE IT PRETTY. ;)

  • Kelly Reaves

    As a critic myself I know how hard it is to write a bad review. Thanks for coming to the show and giving it some thought, anyway.

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