July 28-August 27, 2017
Roman Fine Art
66 Park Place, East Hampton, NY 11937
By KURT MCVEY, JUL. 2017
“The magic of painting is in the metaphors,” says Reisha Perlmutter, sitting on a comfy royal blue couch in her live-work studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “Painting can be really chaotic, abstract and not make sense, but in the end can make a cohesive image that feels like life but doesn’t necessarily look like life.”
This observation may sound obvious to most, but Perlmutter, who is currently exhibiting her first solo show in New York, Immersed, at East Hampton’s Roman Fine Art, wants to make it clear, to collectors, gallerists, and writers especially, that she’s not a hyperrealist painter. She would also like to make it doubly clear that she has nothing against hyperrealist painters; it’s just not her thing.
Her latest body of--again--non-political work, featuring women all of ages, races, and body types languorously immersed in water, has upped her profile considerably in the traditional brick-and-mortar art world as well as online, where her bold, engaging works spread like wildfire on social media, all in a relatively short period of time. Some of this success might have to do with the clear and trending feminist art tidal wave that Perlmutter would have you believe she’s not necessarily riding, but it certainly has a lot to do with her obvious talent, and with her own admission that she’s finally found her voice.
“In grad school [New York Academy of Art, 2015] I had so much feedback, it deflated my ego--so much backlash,” says Perlmutter. “Some said my thesis work [abstract, endoscopic images of women’s insides or her 94-year-old grandfather’s partially translucent, spotted cheeks] was grotesque and no one would buy it. I want them to know I have the same voice, just a different way of expressing it. I haven’t changed that much.”
It’s often when artists find this magical sweet spot and pop, however, that external forces throw the whole thing into question. Forget about misogynist online trolls and seemingly bitter, misguided social justice warriors who would seek to suffocate Perlmutter’s aforementioned voice-primarily (because, in their estimation presumably, she’s a conventionally attractive young white blonde woman from Naples, Florida with supportive doctor parents and therefore she should crawl in a hole and shut up)--but even some former gallerists, initially intrigued by the work, eventually wanted it to be something it’s not.
“I think people see my work and they want it to be really tight,” Perlmutter says, citing a European art dealer who didn’t expect the work to be so…loose. “I think he thought it was more hyper-realistic and was shocked when he saw it in person. This is not so problematic, really, just strange.” What’s truly strange, however, is how often the physical body of the artist and the bodies the artist decides to put in the work (women mostly), face similar criticism. “I think it makes sense that I would be classified as a hyperrealist if you only saw my work on a social media platform because the [online] format is so small,” she says. “With hyperrealism, people tend to think of painters with a tiny little brush, but fundamentally, that’s not how I see myself. The idea of energy being present in the work isn’t because I’m painting it with a tiny brush, it’s because there’s energy in the physicality of the paint and the movement of the brushwork working together, and that feels more like life than rendering something to death.”
Like all figurative work that has something imaginative to impart--and therefore succeeds in the contemporary arena--it's most likely presenting one or more tangible ideas without rendering it, let alone bludgeoning it to death. Outside of the cresting wave of feminist art, figuration and thoughtful representative work is also well into its parallel movement. As trans bodies, women’s bodies, black bodies, and other marginalized bodies come under attack, artists strive to represent them honestly and in their own unique way. But again, this show isn’t political.
“The idea that something is ‘tangible’ is interesting,” notes Perlmutter. “When you look at where we are technologically, especially how quick everything is, like Tinder or Instagram, where you’re swiping all the time, things are so immediate and then they’re gone. We’ve lost our sense of connection. As humans, we need that connection. It’s how we function on a deep biological level.”
This notion of universal biology is at the heart of Perlmutter’s work. Eschewing the carefully orchestrated marginalization or compartmentalization of humans into tribal, intersectional sub-genres, Perlmutter celebrates our species as a whole--and, more specifically, the women who ultimately produce and express this increasingly complex DNA into the world as uncannily identical forms. With so much in common physically and biologically, she proposes, our skin, age, hair type, and body shapes are a comically trivial afterthought. Of course, the patriarchal powers that be disagree, and unfortunately, marginalized voices and bodies are ever on the chopping block. But should this backlash stop our artists, even those who in this country, planet, and dimension, look like Perlmutter, give up on or be criticized for expressing this notion in universal terms?
“I think that immediately, when we see the image of another human, whether it’s incredibly well rendered or almost entirely abstract-where we might get only the gesture of some biology-we, by our nature, engage,” she says. “How can you be interesting if you’re not trying to engage?"
The majority of the engaging we as a species (the masses) like to currently take part in, is that of the negative kind--the critical, the hurtful--and so often from the petty, cowardly, anonymous confines of the nebulous social media shadow-sphere. If you’re bold enough to step out with the vitriol, on Twitter perhaps (or even from the Oval Office), what is this criticism so often predicated upon (whether it’s coming from the so-called "regressive left" or the alt-right), but fear, and the terrifying reality of engaging with the unfamiliar?
“This question is also what my work is about,” adds Perlmutter, whose earlier paintings have functioned as challenging meditations on illness, death, or general exotic otherness. “Why are we so fearful of the full spectrum of life?”
While Perlmutter was in grad school, she took a brutal spill on her bicycle, messing up her left and non-dominant shoulder to the extent that she needed surgery. She put it off until she was done with her thesis show, which didn’t make things easy on her, as she was already working large-scale and was stretching and carrying her own canvas. After graduation, she returned to Florida for surgery and the requisite healing, which led to quite a bit of downtime. She became a child once more… watching the clouds, floating in the gulf. “I was able to return to this fundamental simplicity about what it means to be alive.”
It was in her parents' hot tub that Perlmutter came to the realization that water has the ability to abstract and separate this fixation on body parts. She also understood that water, much like art itself, could be a conductor, a buffer, a conduit--even an invitation. “When I started painting these images, I felt very connected,” she says. “It was such a primordial thing. We come from water, where we feel so connected to the most basic parts of our brains and bodies. Water is such a universally understood thing. I knew there was a chance that everyone could relate to these images. Ultimately when we relinquish all these anxieties, all the bullshit, all the ideals, we can experience the texture, temperature, and smell of the water and unite the senses.”
Perlmutter began bringing in her family and friends to model for her, many being young, lithe, and white. On the floor of her studio, however, are bold images of women of color, in various rippling, glistening pools; women with scoliosis and mastectomy scars displayed proudly, but remember, Immersed and this growing, improving body of work isn’t political--at least, that’s not what Perlmutter is leading with. “I’m still not seeking out models based on their ethnicity, but rather seeking out women who are comfortable with themselves and comfortable knowing that it’s not about whether they’re fat or thin, or what race they are, but that they’re beautiful the way they are.”
After getting totally naked, after being told not to not put on any makeup or jewelry, after being told to forget about their "fat ass" or stretch marks--which they all felt personally obligated to point out without any directorial provocation (thanks to incessant cultural programming)--they would ask, “What should I do?” Perlmutter would invariably reply, “I don’t want you to do anything other than let go and act like no one is watching you.” What Perlmutter knows is that water obscures and abstracts this unsightly “damage” while transporting a physical, anatomical being into a contemporary frame, all before a single photo is taken or a single brush stroke is executed. Perlmutter knows that in water, people tend to block out the noise pollution and the judgment. They forget about the “likes,” forget about Trump, their ex, the gym--and enjoy simply being alive.
“I think we want to sort of compartmentalize our bodies: ‘I don’t like my…whatever.’ Everybody has issues,” she says. “Me included. But when you can stand back and start to perceive your body as a unique, highly intelligent machine, it stops being about hips or ears and becomes about your body coming into existence over millions and millions of years and most importantly, exactly how it’s supposed to. This is the beauty of life." WM
Kurt McVey is a writer based in New York City.
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