By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST, November 2020
The George Floyd billboard by artist Don Perlis, which went up in Times Square on October 27 is the culmination of the series of paintings he calls Trump World which is now up at Salomon Fine Arts on 83 Leonard Street. Perlis is a Bronx-born realist, a figurative artist with a taste for barbed social commentary that brings to mind Daumier and Goya, and this current series is a pictorial journey that has taken Perlis down some dark and winding roads. The earliest painting in the sequence, which depicts a woman kicking in naked man in the butt with feral glee, surfs a general mood, but without a specific target. Other canvases, though, focus on individuals in the dead center of the public eye, such as a suite of works based on Jeffrey Epstein, and Love in the Time of Covid, a painting which, with sublime impudence, borrows the setting of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.
“The perfection of that scene was divine and to violate it a kind of blasphemy” is how Perlis puts it. His violations involve picturing a woman in a Covid mask, her arm on the shoulder of Bill Cosby, who is reaching out for yet another female party-goer. Also Harvey Weinstein, who is in the seat Jesus occupies in the da Vinci. Weinstein though is reaching for a dildo and fondling himself beneath the table. There are Covid 19s in the rafters above, the sky is filled with floating Covid 19s and a “Dr. Strangelove” mushroom cloud is lighting everything in the painting, making it all visible.
It happened that Perlis was completing this painting when George Floyd was killed. The stony brutality of this death, the huge, fast-moving world-wide reaction and the societal changes it has swiftly begun bringing about showed Perlis that he had a subject for a painting that would bring Trump World to a wholly appropriate conclusion. He felt, moreover, that the stark documentation of Floyd’s death, compelling though it has proved, could be improved upon by art. ‘I set out to nail the definitive moment of this tragedy which was akin almost to a martyrdom,” he says. “I wanted it to be more real than the reality so I bent the reality. I turned Floyd’s head around and gave the sidewalk a large space so it would lead the viewers eye to the center of the violent act which was the crushing knee pressing down on his neck, the horror in his face, and the expressionless police, who were like the executioner soldiers in Goya’s Third of May.
“The eye is then led up to the cop who’s acting out his authority role while indifferently looking out of the painting as if he’s just bored by the whole thing. The hub cap on the tire above Floyd’s head is especially important. It forms a perfect Cartesian circle portraying the order and harmony this event is shattering and destroying. The painting was completed in two weeks. I worked on it until the last moment and delivered it wet.” WM
Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British-American writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.
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