Issue 218, Fall 2016
As we assembled this portfolio by Lincoln Perry, we became curious about his synthesis of art of the past—Renaissance painting particularly, but also such disparate modern sources as Courbet, Picasso, and Balthus. When we reached him on the phone at his home in Maine, Perry spoke about the reciprocal relationship between content and form and his view of the history of art as an extended family. “I look to steal everything that moves me,” he has written, “anything that can suggest ways to solve the problems a painter faces.” He also drew connections between his own work and that of his wife, Ann Beattie, whose story “Panthers” appears on page 143.
My father was absolutely hostile to all the arts. He was an old lefty who thought that the only reality in the world was material and economic, so the arts were, in his words, “a crock of shit”—all the humanities, in fact. So I probably felt some rebelliousness as a kid. I also just had an instinctive desire to draw. I would draw everything, all the time. I would even illustrate my mother’s shopping lists.
After I graduated college, I met a painter who became very important to me, a guy named Gabriel Laderman. He was miraculously cogent and knowledgeable—tough, strange, cranky, but brilliant—and he introduced me to other artists, living and dead, and I was off and running. I never looked back because he made art so dependable, like belonging to a second family. He had a molecular model of art. His idea was that we are always forming a bigger and bigger, accretive molecule of artistic contributions. So instead of a fragmented, linear model, where you think of artists as being separated by time and place, you can think of art as an expansive, coherent whole, a world tradition. That was, and still is, such a beautiful, comforting idea—that you’re not participating in some “art world,” you’re participating in art. It’s not the anxiety of influence, it’s the giddy joy of influence.
Until I met Ann, about thirty-two years ago, I wasn’t a big reader of fiction. I read mostly art history and biographies. History in general—I wanted to be a history teacher initially. I still do read a lot of history, which I find horrifying and fascinating, like a train wreck. But I realized I was not a scholar. When I took an art-history course, I eventually saw that I would rather try to make the stuff than write about it. Somebody pointed out that Ann and I both create fiction but don’t trust stories per se. She believes that people can have a story, that they need to have a story, in order to function in the world, but that this doesn’t mean the story is true. We don’t have narrative arcs from day to day. The same is true in my paintings, for example in the four paintings of the house, collectively called Maine Moment (pages 110–111). The narrative here is absolutely inconclusive. There’s a guy going down the stairs and a woman sunbathing, and the paintings are about the interaction, or the alienation, between them—these two people were breaking up. It’s not a sequential temporal narrative, it’s an instant in time seen from four different perspectives.
In general, there are two ways to confront the world in a painting. You can organize the space so that the major shapes and forms you see or invent are parallel to the picture plane, or else they can be oblique to it. You can either have something, à la Clement Greenberg, that affirms the picture plane, echoing it fairly literally, or you can arrange things at an angle. In Maine Moment, the two on the left are very planar and the two on the right are very oblique. There’s a wooziness, a kind of disorientation, inherent in the oblique that we never quite get with the planar. In other words, you could organize a battle scene where people are slaughtering each other, and if it’s planar you won’t quite share the chaos of being there. You will have stepped back. You’ll have organized pictorially in a way that can’t help but be metaphoric. In this sequence of four paintings, the process of disorientation is gradual. By the time you get to that last panel, where nothing is parallel to the picture plane, you’re meant to be a little seasick. You feel like you’re falling off both sides of the painting, as if there’s a fictional spatial mound in the middle that is leaking down its sides, and her left leg, her left arm, the stairs, and the roofline are all kind of dripping off this imagined spatial hump.
In the upper right, where the boyfriend is going down the stairs, one has entered a game of Chutes and Ladders bisected by an unyielding white vertical. We’re meant to feel the division between them—that they’re separated irreconcilably. Their two worlds are difficult to bridge pictorially. And then the lower left-hand one—that’s a Hopper-esque summary of how desolate their relationship is. And the upper left one is supposed to be a kind of seductive introduction—this might be a beautiful place, there might be beautiful light, but there’s something a little creepy about how relentlessly vertical and repetitive those banisters are. We can’t help but subliminally feel all those stripes and bars as somehow imprisoning.
I remember a million years ago I was at the Vatican Museums, and they had a tiny, cruddy relief sculpture of two figures, and it wasn’t anything beautiful at all, but I thought, Why am I so drawn to this? And I realized it was because they are lovers. If there’s a general overriding interest in my work, it has to do with how things come together and try to cohere. I don’t want this coming together to seem easy or automatic or pretty or sentimental, I want there to be a kind of agon. I want to see things brought together through difficulty. So whether it’s a man or a woman or whether it’s a person in a place, I’m always aware of the downside. We live in a pretty horrible world, and when you do find a beautiful place to paint, it seems to me slightly strange not to have that sense of conflict included or implied. If you just paint the beautiful spots, it’s a dream world, and neither Ann nor I live in a dream world.