Santa Monica Museum of Modern Art, California, USA
A first peek into Luciano Perna’s recent installation at the Santa Monica Museum of Art suggested a rambling group show, so filled was it with a diversity of sculpture, photographs and paintings. Upon learning that Science/Fiction - A Movie Set: Ahead of Schedule and Camera Shy (1999) was actually the work of a single artist, a second judgement might have concluded that he was suffering from a case of over-eager exhibitionism. Yet it soon became evident how important the integrity of each piece was to the success of the whole. The wall-to-wall installation was essentially a complex matrix of references and associations that combined to tell a compellingly convoluted tale of artistic maturation. The narrative depended on where one entered the story, but the ultimate effect of the installation was uniform.
For years, Perna has explored an open-ended approach to self-referentiality, using his Italian heritage as a lens through which he sees art and art history, whilst continually mixing in homages to artists and ideas that have helped to form his sensibility. If this sounds painfully familiar to those who suffered through the personal histories that so many artists dragged out of the closet and into their art in the late 80s and early 90s, Perna’s work is never maudlin or hermetic, but laced with an easy going humour and ready accessibility that separates it from other on-the-couch approaches.
In one section of the show, where four large, colour contact sheets offered a serial, frame-by-frame investigation of Detroit techno guru Jeff Mills at work, Perna seemed to be poking fun at artistic self-analysis. Adjacent to this intense portrait was a Le Corbusier lounge chair, paired with a dual-turntable DJ station - a setting for a little DJ psychoanalysis. The turntables had been removed and replaced by institutional wall clocks, which ticked together in syncopation, a reference both to time-bound sessions with a psychiatrist and the spiralling symbiosis of two records being played at once. Nearby was a series of silvery negative photographs - pictures of some of the first images the artist made as a child in Naples - printed with the aid of a computer onto canvas and then stretched. Their ghostly, X-ray appearance gave them the feel of rediscovered memories; their subject matter appeared random, as if one were surveying one’s surroundings so as to better understand them. In other, similar images installed elsewhere in the show, a toy alien figure (the implied photographer?) emerged from a haze of pixels within the frame.
The photographs can be seen as storyboards for the sci-fi movie alluded to in the show’s title, and many other elements contribute to a recognisable outer-space mise-en-scène. Two black monoliths from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) anchored the centre of the room, one serving as a high-altitude promontory for the alien figure, while the other blocked the view of a rocket-like, Ferrari-red Ducati motorcycle. A corner of the gallery was covered with purple egg cartons, a B-movie solution for a sound stage. More computer prints on canvas provided sample outer-space landscapes, their simplified, squiggly plant forms looking like plausibly implausible flora for a moonscape, while a three-panel painting made up of cooked spaghetti on raw canvas could be seen as a low-budget experiment with a warp-speed effect - the spaghetti was tightly clustered on the left hand side, but dispersed on the right, creating a cartoonish blur. Well-established in Perna’s repertoire, his spaghetti painting is a witty, Italo-centric riff on Duchamp, Matisse, Pollock, and Julia Child, but has never been used to such narrative ends before. Similarly, the egg-box sound stage makes oblique reference to Piero Manzoni, famous for his egg works and a hero of the younger artist. Manzoni is directly conjured in a strange prop within the show, where a thick monograph on his work sat atop an early Gio Ponti chair, which in turn supported an old Italian sewing machine that seemed to play a Jeff Mills record. A book on Amazonian Indians and a blow-dart gun rounded out the quizzical dada assemblage, a circuitous bundle of references that approximated the ricochet of connections energising the installation as a whole.
Following Perna’s careering narrative was not always easy (nor even possible at times), but a definite picture of his coming-to-terms with Dada, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Conceptualism, Minimalism, film, and now techno emerges, reflecting an unusually successful autobiographical practice.