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Sam Perry @ Sanchez Art Center

Beneath Above II, 2009

If you feel a twinge of nostalgia when viewing Sam Perry’s wood sculpture, the reason is that his work harks to an era when Bay Area artists were drawing as much inspiration from craft and folk traditions as from European Modernism.  Chief among the mid-20th century artists doing so were Alvin Light (1931-80) and J.B. Blunk (1926-2002), prodigious wood carvers whose work spanned furniture, figuration, abstraction and, in Blunk’s case, architecture. 

Both artists influenced Perry, a 51-year-old Oakland-based sculptor whose work gives off the look of things smoothed by water. With their deep red tonality, the 12 works on view evince a burnished elegance while retaining their essential woodiness, seen in termite tracks, fire-blackened knots and in gaping cracks held in check by wood splines embedded below the surface and sanded flush.  Raw chisel marks figure prominently in several pieces as well.  Overall, the show, curated by the sculptor Jerry Barrish, divides between large floor-mounted sculptures and smaller pedestal and wall works, the largest of which measure about three to four feet high.
Born in Hawaii to a second-generation canoe maker, Perry, after earning an MFA in ceramics at California College of Arts and Crafts, worked as Viola Frey’s studio assistant for 17 years. (Today he is the director of installation and conservation at Runnymede Sculpture Farm, a private preserve in Woodside from which he salvages the raw material for his art.) The switch to wood occurred in 2000, and he’s since operated in two modes: carving sculpture out of big blocks of wood with a chainsaw and assembling discrete pieces into knot-like forms and biomorphic shapes.  The latter, at a quick glance, would seem to echo Arp, Noguchi and Brancusi, except that the associations called up by Perry tend to be more specific: kelp bulbs, seaweed tangles, emaciated figures and slipknots. 
Walking Memory, 2015

Still, much of Perry’s oeuvre remains enigmatic, and that says a lot about what we expect from wood. Which is: We expect it to unfold with the geometric precision of things we know, like houses, furniture and picture frames.  By contrast, Perry’s sculptures, with their curvaceous, loopy lines and ambiguous references, do the opposite. Not surprisingly, the strongest, most challenging pieces in this show are those where allusions are open-ended and where the results seem less tethered to craft and more attuned to current strains of abstraction, like what we see in Martin Puryear’s work. While that comparison is imperfect – Puryear’s work contains social commentary that Perry’s doesn’t — both artists draw from the same formalist traditions, and in that they the share a penchant for pushing wood into organic-looking shapes that refer to nature but don’t replicate things that actually exist in nature.  That dynamic forces us to look hard at what gives Perry’s work its essential charge.  

Beneath Above II (2009), a human-sized sculpture, reads as a series of Surrealist visions: a two-headed bowling pin, a pair of enormous kelp bulbs or a malignant punctuation mark.  Walking Memory (2015), taller still, presents an apparition worthy of Giacometti.  It conjures a figure out of a thin branch twisted into a pair of “legs.” It’s cinched at the top to form a “head” and crossed at the bottom in a kind entrelacé, poised to leap across the room. My favorite work in the show, Unraveled (2006,  is one of the smallest. With its twisted

Wrapped, 2009

 reptilian body and layers of wood piled up at the tail like folds of pulled taffy, it calls to mind a snake poised to strike.  It’s a fine example of Perry making wood do the seemingly impossible.  

Elsewhere he repeats that folded form, but not as effectively.  In Winding Through (2007) he enfolds it around wooden balls; in Ribbon Roller (2008), he uses them to encase lathe-carved cylinders that, when set upright, resemble a dough-kneading machine; and in Wrapped (2009), he stations a fat cylinder between pointy wings, creating a totem.  These craft-cum-design works are fine as far as they go; but they’re not Perry’s strong suit.  That would be the gnarlier, wackier, less stylized forms; the ones that make us stare and wonder.  Had the curator selected more of those, this show would have stronger: proof of what Perry is capable of when at his best.  
Sam Perry: “Curve” @ Sanchez Art Center through June 28, 2015. 

One Response to “Sam Perry @ Sanchez Art Center”

  1. Ann Weber says:

    Really nice article about Sam’s work. We knew each other in grad school and through Viola Frey. His work took off when he switched from clay to wood as he found his true calling.

    You wrote so eloquently and accurately about Sam following in certain traditions: a true object maker and sculptor. And yes Sam adds to the contemporary canon with his magnificent interpretations and fine skill with one material. (You see my kinship with his goals?)

    Keep up all the good important work of critical writing and publishing, a yeoman’ task, but so vital. Thank you a million times for the work you do.


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