Simon Periton: Sadie Coles HQ * London, England
by Adam McEwen, London, England
Simon Periton had a show at Sadie Coles HQ, made, for the most part, of cut paper. A big black doily hung on the wall in one corner; in another, a brown owl with turquoise doilies for eyes clutched a brown branch with brown claws. Some kind of unidentifiable biomorph of cut-and-folded paper crouched on the floor. Complexly mutant Christmas decorations made of foil dangled from the ceiling, bouncing gently, trailing rose-thorned tendrils.
Periton's work is, literally, as thin as it can be; so thin it almost isn't there. A series of surfaces, cut or intersected, formed or carefully twisted, delineates shapes, edges, and outlines. The pieces reference paintings, but resemble line drawings. They look like hard work but speak of fun. They like to take up wall space but revel in their own insubstantiality, flirting with being nothing and insisting on being two-dimensional. Cut-outs and paper silhouettes result from a process of subtraction, of stenciling away what isn't to leave and what remains--what is barely a micron thick, not artificial so much as gleefully superficial.
queen victoria, the black doily, was the cornerstone of the show, and also the biggest piece. A doily, the lacy mat placed under a lamp or glass to protect the furniture, is itself a surrogate surface; a degraded, almost laughable item on account of the gap between its fussy purpose and its intense decorativeness. Periton exploits this gap; after mining it for its blank suggestiveness, he can then pack it with whatever he wants. Looking closer, you see that the doily is also a target painting, made by using two different kinds of black paper in concentric rings. Where they meet, the papers are set one into the other instead of being collaged, which preserves the single layer. queen victoria hangs, transfixed in Victorian aspic, blankly and disarmingly ornate.
The piece is, as its title suggests, both stately and funereal; elegance and severity verging on the po-faced. But it's also just trying to keep a straight expression, like Queen Vic played by Hattie Jacques in a Carry On film. In the 18th-century French court, grand ladies would while away the afternoons by employing dwarves, necks craned, to pleasure them beneath their lacy underskirts. There's something of the same going on here. queen victoria's giving nothing away. She's just a doily, and just a target painting; an overblown moment of Victoriana, and also some kind of time-warped nod to pop, Philip Taaffe, and SoHo lingerie shops. Like Stella, both early and late, she denies any definite reading in the most definite way.
There are veiled allusions in the show to other art and times, but the work is reticent about their meanings, and they're no sooner given than abandoned. The modular, organic form which sits on the gallery floor is titled dark star. It's been slotted together; it's made of grainy black-and-white photos of doilies. It seems delicate yet dense. It looks like an alien information-gathering beacon come briefly to rest. It looks like part of a medieval knight's armory, as if it should have a chain and handle attached to it--but the knight who owned it would be of a Monty Python variety. It is a mournful, dark flowering, and wholly unexplained. It shares its title with John Carpenter's early low-budget sci-fi classic, and also with an epic Grateful Dead track. Its referents are so disparate and fleeting, from low-tech to space shot, that it conflates past and future and creates its own stationary present. Above all, it is singular, and it does what it wants. It won't be pinned down--that way, it has a better chance of getting under the viewer's skin.
The show, as a whole, is understated, dressed predominantly in somber browns and blacks, which give it an air of austerity and calm. For all that, though, Periton's pieces are affable. Their humor is winning. They seem like they'd fit in at one of Aubrey Beardsley's parlor orgies, all intricate clouds of perfume and farts, peacock feathers and hard-ons. Like Beardsley, too, they're social, wanting to include the world. Iconic features such as barbed wire and rose thorns appear regularly in Periton's cut-out technique. In the past he's slipped in hooded gunmen, anarchy A's, flying eyeballs, and policemen (from the back cover of The Clash's first album). This is the teeming inclusiveness of a Bosch set-piece, with the same surreal, chaotic tinge. Elements function here as they do in a Gothic novel; if Periton's owl cropped up in a 19th-century Gothic romance, the novel's protagonists would recognize it immediately as a portend, and would know exactly what to do. The same might be said of the rose thorns, the barbed wire, and the doily. While some are stronger than others, all of these pieces are self-contained enough to operate as markers, like counters in a board game in some fantastic medieval narrative.
Periton never actually supplies the narrative. It is present only as a trace, or a suggestion, like the cast of a shadow. What he encourages us to do is to take the gloss, one micron thick, at face value, and to let that trigger our own associations. The collisions between low-value craft technique and gallery product, between high art history and Python-esque piss-take, serve to muddy the waters, so that Periton can more easily tread a line between innocence and experience. Ideally, that line might be called freedom; it might also be called pleasure.