New York

Anton Perich: Electric Paintings 1978-2014 at Postmasters Gallery

“No, Wade Guyton did not invent a new paintbrush; Anton Perich did in 1978, when Guyton was six.” Thus combatively begins the press release for Anton Perich: Electric Paintings 1978–2014 at Postmasters Gallery. The un-cited author of the claim that “Wade Guyton invented a new paintbrush” is Jerry Saltz, writing on Guyton’s 2012 survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Of course, Saltz was aware that Guyton’s “invention” amounted to the novel appropriation of an existing technology: the commercial inkjet printer, through which the artist would pull his canvases. Perich can indeed better claim to have invented something. His “electric painting machine,” developed in the late 1970s, transfers projected images onto canvas using a motorized contraption that deposits lines of acrylic paint in rows according to the presence or absence of light. It was the painterly analog of the digital inkjet—a technology that had yet to become known, let alone available to, the masses at the time.

Anton Perich. American Altarpiece, 2004. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Postmasters Gallery, New York

Anton Perich. American Altarpiece, 2004; acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Postmasters Gallery, New York.

The similarities to Guyton mostly end there. Perich’s work registered a cultural–technological matrix in which the mechanics of paint/ink transfer were not nearly as important as the emergent aesthetics of video—a technology whose novelty had all but vanished by the time Guyton entered the scene. The Sony Portapak, introduced to the American market in 1967, first freed video recording from the studio. By the mid 1970s, Perich had swapped camera for camcorder as the ideal means to capture the bohemia of lower Manhattan with which he was enthralled. A 16-video lineup—one of the highlights of the Postmasters exhibition—offers an entrancing distillation of what are now comfortably referred to as New York City’s “bad old good old days.” In my intermittent viewing, I caught an impassioned discussion of the newly built World Trade Center, already monumental if only 45 percent rented (sound familiar?), a neon-bathed fashion show set to the music of Kraftwerk, and a hedonistic disco in which a lone female dancer, locking the gaze of Perich’s camcorder, is compelled to put on an exhibitionist display—one that ends abruptly when a nearby man decides to join in by dropping his trousers, effectively puncturing the recording device’s hypnotic bubble.

This ability of the video camera to arrest its subjects, entombing them in a low-resolution field of glowing, glitchy horizontal bars, seems the undeniable referent for Perich’s paintings, thirty-six years of which are sampled in the present exhibition. For such an enduring project, precious little change or development is discernible in Perich’s approach over the years. The majority of the works feature female subjects (one notable exception is Andy Warhol, with whom Perich was well acquainted) in close-up—a hallmark of video recording, where poor resolution made distance shots undesirable. Perich’s “resolution” is variable: Some relatively older works like Thorvaldson (1995) use a gradation of line thicknesses to delicately model the subject’s features, even giving an illusion of depth, while some newer ones, like Misha Carbon (2013), employ crude, thick streaks, nearly dissolving the subject’s features in video-like static. Forays into complete abstraction are present at the beginning of Perich’s career, as in The Original Glitch (1978), a broken black rectangle suggestive of Malevich in the TV age, as well as in its present chapter, as in Ancient Music (2010), the bleeding color palette of which could draw comparisons to Guyton. In one of Perich’s best works, American Altarpiece (2004), abstract horizontal streaks are doubly coded, connoting both mundane video-recording imperfections and the transcendent color fields of a Rothko.

Anton Perich. Ancient Music, 2010. Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Postmasters Gallery, New York.

Anton Perich. Ancient Music, 2010; acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of Postmasters Gallery, New York.

The apparent stasis of Perich’s painting project may explain why writing on the artist has tapered over the years, failing to recognize his arguable place in the artistic genealogy behind the heavily publicized work of Wade Guyton. Postmasters’ delivery of Electric Paintings 1978–2014 as a show with significant art-historical stakes—a bracing departure from typically poker-faced gallery posturing—is warranted, but merely establishing Perich as the patriarch of inkjet-style painting would be a paltry feat. Rather, what is interesting about Perich’s work is how he used his printer-like approach to capture the historically unprecedented video gaze in paint, much like Guyton used his appropriated apparatus to explore an emergent aesthetics of personal computing. Who “invented the new paintbrush” is very much beside the point.

Anton Perich: Electric Paintings 1978–2014 is on view at Postmasters Gallery through November 22, 2014.