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The High Plains Alchemy of John Perreault

The Southwest is not a place that I associate with the work of John Perreault. A New York City native, Perreault was a pioneer of the Street Works movement of the 1960s, and has since produced a rich and varied body of experimental art while writing poetry, art criticism, and fiction for the past four decades. All the while he has worked in dialogue with New York and its rigor, sophistication, superficial trends, occasional revelations and evolutions. He divides his time between a home / studio on the Lower East Side and his studio in Belport, Long Island.

Seascapes & Toothpaste Murals

Perreault is currently developing two distinct bodies of work. One consists of found seascapes which are born out of an intriguing process of appropriation and manipulation. Perreault plies yard sales and second-hand stores for seascapes that emulate surf-side sunsets. He then drips Elmer’s Glue onto the surface of the painting in gestural patterns and finally covers the glue with beach sand. The result is a sandy impasto design through which the viewer perceives illusory depth of the seascape. His second body consists of toothpaste murals. Working on walls primed with blue paint, Perreault squeezes toothpaste directly from the tube onto the surface, creating gestural marks inspired by the Drunken Style of Zen calligraphy and a pseudo Arabic nonsense script that was practiced by Italian ceramists during the Renaissance.

Sign at Cochise College, Sierra Vista, Arizona, February 2005, welcoming John Perreault.

John Perreault’s Family Tree

Perreault’s artistic influences are quite diverse and warrant acknowledgement. Since artists can freely choose their own family and Perreault has selected the following:

Great-Great-Grandfather: John Dee Great-Grandfathers: Alfred Jarry and Arthur Rimbaud Grandfather: Marcel Duchamp Great-Grandmothers: Alice Neel and Beatrice Wood Uncles: John Cage, Barnet Newman, Jackson Pollock, Yves Klein and Joseph Beuys Aunts: Lee Miller, Joan Mitchell, and Jay DeFeo Brothers: Eduardo Costa, Scott Burton, Glen Seator and Mike Bidlo Sisters: Ana Mendieta, Hanna Weiner, Beth Ames Swartz.

Go West

Sierra Vista, Arizona, at an altitude of 5000 feet, lies only twenty miles north of the Mexican border. It is rough desert country in which Apache leaders Geronimo and Cochise once roamed amongst cactus and mesquite trees as they struggled to fend off Spanish and North American settlers. The American Cavalry prevailed, and Sierra Vista is now adjacent to Fort Huachuca, a Military Intelligence Center which is considered one of the top ten enemy targets in the United States. It is in the unlikely town of Sierra Vista that we find John Perrault’s latest mural.

Toothpaste Mural by John Perreault, February 2005, Cochise College, Sierra Vista, Arizona.

A Mural

In the cafeteria of Sierra Vista’s Cochise College, Perreault coated six 5 x 8 foot panels with Delphinium blue flat paint from Martha Stewart’s line of everyday colors. On preparing the panels, Perreault produced tube after tube of Colgate “Total” toothpaste and applied the perfumed pigment directly to the ground. With it he produced an arcane calligraphy of signs that emulates the natural world, suggesting stars, constellations (Arthur Danto once referred to them as “Celestial”) and the play of light on water. Indeed the themes of sea and sky seem to unite Perreault’s seascapes and murals. Perreault’s ancestors hail from the French coastline of Brittany and the artist has a personal connection to seafaring and the mariner’s need to navigate by the stars.

Alchemical Reflections

Medieval alchemists sought to transform base, common metals into gold and Perreault’s toothpaste mural takes the humblest materials from consumer culture and recasts them to emulate forms of sea and sky in nature. Alchemists sought to purify matter by combining opposites, like the masculine and feminine principles which, through their union, could attain potent creative powers. Sea and sky are opposites which naturally interact through light cast on water and find communion in rain, which falls during a storm, uniting heaven and earth.

Toothpaste Mural by John Perreault (detail), February 2005, Cochise College, Sierra Vista, Arizona.

Petroglyphs, Calligraphy, Frescoes & Food

There is an ancient tradition of wall-writing in South Eastern Arizona. In Murray Springs, just outside of Sierra Vista, one finds petroglyphs carved by the Clovis culture who were the earliest known people to have inhabited North America. Perreault’s work has a kindred spirit with some of these ancient works in terms of circular mark-making, but is perhaps closer to painterly traditions of the Renaissance. Toothpaste seems to form a living bond with the fresh blue paint beneath as in the fresco tradition.

Perreault’s mural was conceived for a student cafeteria which raises the issue of food. A favorite subject of petroglyphs are animals associated with the hunt and frescos use egg yolk as a binding agent for the pigment. Each of us temporarily imbibe toothpaste in the morning but it isn’t quite a foodstuff. Toothpaste lies somewhere between medicine and food. It feels artificial and foreign in our mouths and we are never tempted to swallow. Toothpaste remains aloof from us despite its alluring perfumes and colors. Students eating in the Cochise College cafeteria therefore have a sense of otherness and familiarity as they dine alongside the Toothpaste Mural.

Students eating before Toothpaste Mural by John Perreault, February 2005, Cochise College, Sierra Vista, Arizona.

In truth, most of the students are unaware that the mural pigment is toothpaste. In Perreault’s hands it is masterfully transformed into transcendent forms. Both celestial and watery, these panels bring new paradigms to the dessert, truly nourishing viewers with stuff devoid of nutritional value: toothpaste.

© Daniel Rothbart, 2005.

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