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)

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)

“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)

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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Alicia Eler

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED...

14 replies on “The Failures of an Artist Versus the Failures of America”

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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. 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. 😉

  4. 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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