Chock-Full of Surprises: The Art of Kristy Perez

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Pecha Kucha San Antonio, 2013, performance with Britt Lorraine. Photo Courtesy of Kristy Perez.

Those familiar with the work of San Antonio artist Kristy Perez may be wondering what the two-time recipient of the prestigious Artist Foundation of San Antonio grant has been up to lately.  After traveling to Paris in 2014 to attend an exhibition of one of her earlier works, Perez found herself thinking “Where do I go from here?”  Having tried her hand at sculpture, installation, and performance art over the past decade, it seemed to her that it was time to retreat, to lay low for awhile in order to figure out what direction she needed to take next.  For Perez, the answer to this typical artist’s dilemma was to return to the basics:  painting and drawing.  New works in these areas, and some in progress, will be available for viewing on Sunday, March 20 at a Contemporary Art Month event, an open house that Perez is holding at her studio in “The Compound” at 523 Stieren.

Perez has been drawing all of her life, but didn’t become serious about the idea of pursuing art as a career until she had first been employed in several other areas, having waited tables, been a legal clerk, and sold shoes, just to name a few.  Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Perez was a frequent attendee at art openings around San Antonio.  From 2004-10, she worked as an assistant to San Antonio art conservator Anne Zanikos, which enabled her to hone her skills at painting and gilding objects.  From around 2005-07, Perez took studio art courses at San Antonio College, where she studied sculpture under Mark Pritchett, painting with Eduardo Rodriguez, and drawing with  Susan Witta-Kemp.    Finding that she had an aptitude for making sculptures from discarded objects left on the street for trash collection, Perez took a bold step and applied for a grant from the Artist Foundation of San Antonio.  Upon being selected and receiving the Chez Bernard Award in Visual Art, she used the funds to create her first solo exhibition in 2007, which was held in a warehouse at the Friedrich Building in Eastside San Antonio. 

The exhibition included a number of found objects that Perez altered to articulate about love relationships through visual poetry.  Her work “Fight!” (2007) features a crutch attached to a swivel caster wheel that looks as if it should topple, however it stands proud and tall, a feat accomplished by screwing the wheel into the concrete floor of the warehouse.  “If at First You Don’t Succeed” (2007) is a reworking of an old three-legged antique chair, with images of a boy courting a girl on the upholstery, by piercing the chair seat with a dowel that extends to the floor to become the chair’s fourth leg.  In both works, Perez used her conservation skills to refinish the surfaces, transforming the abandoned relics into beautiful objects, as if to say that love is precious.   With the title “Fight!” applied to the self-sufficient crutch, the artist encourages us to get up when we are knocked down, and save those relationships that are worth fighting for.   A similar idea is at play in “If at First You Don’t Succeed,” with the dowel serving as a reference to either Cupid’s arrow or heartbreak, and as the fourth leg, to the ideas that a lover can  be supportive or wounded hearts can be mended.  

Following those works, Perez continued altering found everyday objects, choosing mundane items and beautifying them by using some of her favorite expressive materials.  Black chalkboard paint, a medium she discovered while taking courses at SAC, produces one of the most sumptuously dark blacks around (only to be out-blacked earlier this month by a “blacker” pigment that was recently patented for exclusive use by the British artist Anish Kapoor).  The 23k gold leaf is a seductive material that Perez used frequently while restoring objects in the conservation lab.  By applying both materials to the surfaces of rawhide dog bones in 2008, she effectively altered the appearance of these objects to resemble artifacts or relics.  At the same time, Perez infused them with connotations relating to her own humorous thoughts about desire, the phallus, and the sought-after trophies of those who believe in a dog-eat-dog world.

For another series, Perez drew inspiration from found fabrics, such as the black lace she used to create surrogate lenses for the broken frames of a discarded pair of eyeglasses, or the pigskin leather that she used to stitch together a reversible jersey that she embellished with hand-gilded upholstery tacks.  Although her alterations were intended to bring a theatrical presence to simple small items, Perez also succeeded here in demonstrably feminizing objects that are often associated with macho sports and the outdoors.

In 2009, Perez was invited to create concurrent site-specific installations in two exhibition venues that were located across the street and down the block from one another, Sala Diaz and Unit B Gallery, which closed its doors in early 2014.   At the time, Perez had recently ended a relationship and entered into a new one with her partner and sometimes collaborator, dancer and choreographer Britt Lorraine.  So, continuing her investigation of relationships as something that she considers to be both desirable and precious, Perez opted to comment on the subject using gold text.  In what was a very radical move, as well as the ultimate ode to Minimalism, the artist installed just a single word or phrase in unlikely yet carefully calculated locations within each space.  At Sala Diaz,  the first room of the gallery was left completely empty, which had the effect of surprising viewers, perhaps by startling visitors at first, until they walked around to discover the phrase “All That Stands Between Us” embedded into the wood floorboards of the second room.  While the phrase itself refers to obstacles or barriers in relationships, such hindrances could be conceptually broken or overcome by simply walking across the line of text.   At Unit B, where she shared the venue with the conceptual artist Alejandro Diaz (who founded Sala Diaz), she used 23k gold leaf to stencil the word ‘mother’ onto the surface of an open cupboard in the gallery’s second room, which was used to mount art work but also housed a kitchen.  This installation was particularly poignant, since the very notion of one’s mother immortalized in gold is a most appropriate tribute to virtually anyone’s mother.  At the same time, the clever relationship between the word and its placement brings to mind a host of associations, ranging from traditional stereotyping of women to Old Mother Hubbard of nursery rhyme fame.

Somewhere Along the Way, 2011, found objects, Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, Austin. Photo Courtesy of Kristy Perez.

Somewhere Along the Way, 2011, found objects, Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center, Austin. Photo Courtesy of Kristy Perez.

For a subsequent installation, held in 2011 at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center in Austin, Perez moved from minimal to maximal, and integrated a cluster of objects found in her Southtown neighborhood to form a scatter piece within a larger installation of other artists’ works.   At the center of her section, she positioned a tall sculpture made by sticking a street post into a wooden cable spool, and attached a pencil on a string to the post.  This latter feature made the work participatory, in that visitors were encouraged to use the pencil to leave their mark on the spool.

This was the second time, in fact, that Perez had created an activity for visitors in an exhibition space.   For the 2010 anniversary gala at Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, she printed the phrase “Anything Koons can do I can do better” on paper napkins and hand towels, which she installed at the bars and in the rest rooms respectively, so ultimately they were used and discarded by guests at the event.   Koons, of course, is one of the most financially successful artists of our time, so there is ironic humor in attaching his name to a cheap disposable item.  In a related move, Perez took photos of crumpled napkins when she and Britt Lorraine turned their 2013 Pecha Kucha San Antonio presentation into a performance, alternating the photos of the napkins with images of Lorraine imitating the shape of each napkin with her body.

We Are a Handful, 2010, performance with Britt Lorraine, McNay Art Museum.

We Are a Handful, 2010, performance with Britt Lorraine, McNay Art Museum.

In their more ambitious performances, as seen in their Pecha Kucha presentation, Lorraine usually interacts in some way with Perez’s art.  Working together under the name SaintLorraine, the duo has performed at such venues as the McNay Art Museum and the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center.  In preparation for “We Are a Handful,” which was presented in 2010 at the McNay’s Jane & Arthur Stieren Center for Exhibitions, Perez sewed together and hand-gilded several vinyl bags, filled each with 25 to 30 pounds of sand, and installed them underneath a staircase, where they were left idle for one week.  In the performance, Lorraine entered the space and moved the heavy bags around rigorously for one hour, relying on her experience with dance movement to create a variety of configurations that suggest a range of emotions associated with struggle as well as with unity, which was expressed when she merged herself with the bags to resemble a monolithic sculpture.  Following the performance, the bags remained in their final positions for a week, lending temporal balance to the pre-performance phase.

In creating the installation for “Giving to Get”, SaintLorraine’s 2013 performance about sacrificial offerings at the  Guadalupe, Perez returned to the idea, that she had introduced at Sala Diaz, of incorporating an element of surprise for viewers.   Upon entering the first section of the installation, the audience encountered a wall of live roses (their stems stuck into holes drilled into the wall) and a hanging curtain, under which only the upper half of Lorraine’s body was visible as she interacted rhythmically with it for three hours.  To see what was taking place behind the curtain, one had to walk through other galleries to the opposite side of the venue.  In addition to finding Lorraine’s moving legs, visitors saw a small abstract painting and a Plexiglas donation box etched with the name SaintLorraine, to which some even contributed small change.

Forever is Longer Than Us, 2012, ink on paper. Image Courtesy of Kristy Perez.

Forever is Longer Than Us, 2012, ink on paper. Image Courtesy of Kristy Perez.

Perez did not concentrate much on drawing until she faced a series of health issues in 2011.  To assist in her recuperation, she started drawing images of her sculptures and of human anatomy.   Eventually this led to a series of crisp, animated skull drawings, where human hair grows directly from the skulls.  Isolated against barren backgrounds, these hybrids of the living and the dead appear to come alive before our eyes, which Perez considers a kind of dark humor that came to her while bedridden.

Currently, Perez is investigating the Japanese aesthetic concept known as “wabi-sabi”, which goes beyond Western definitions of beauty to include imperfection.  This idea can be observed in the individual paintings of her recent Wabi-Sabi series, where asymmetry dominates most of the individual paintings, and overall balance only emerges when they are grouped together to form a larger composition.   Similarly, in her new drawings, which are inspired by Japanese theatrical masks and Samurai helmets, Perez appears to be on to something that could turn out to be uniquely her own.  Through vigorously drawn lines and quirky colors such as shocking pink, she has infused her newest work with a refreshingly strange and unfamiliar edge, which should be a primary goal of every artist who seeks to explore uncharted territory.

Visitors can view Perez’ newest works during a Contemporary Art Month event on Sunday, March 20, from 10 a.m. to 2p.m. at her studio in “The Compound” at 523 Stieren.

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*Top Image:Kristy Perez in her studio Photo by David S. Rubin

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