Robert Perkins

25 May — 23 Jun 2017 at the Benjamin Spademan in London, United Kingdom

18 MAY 2017
Robert Perkins with Basil Bunting, Fragment, 1980. Lithograph printed by Derriere L'Etoile Studios, New York
Robert Perkins with Basil Bunting, Fragment, 1980. Lithograph printed by Derriere L'Etoile Studios, New York

Benjamin Spademan is delighted to announce that the debut exhibition of the artist and filmmaker Robert Perkins will open at his London gallery on the 25th of May. Entitled The Written Image, the two-part show will be a presentation of paintings, prints and collages created by Perkins in collaboration with renowned poets, from Seamus Heaney to Allen Ginsberg.

The genesis for the project that would become The Written Image series came from the notable poet Elizabeth Bishop. As a student at Harvard University in the 1970s, Perkins was accepted into Bishop’s small creative writing seminar. At their first one- on-one meeting, she let Perkins sit down before saying, ‘You’re not a poet. What are you?’ Caught off guard, he replied, ‘I want to be a painter.’ Upon learning that Perkins wanted to be an artist, she wrote out her poem ‘The Fish,’ and asked him to illustrate it. Perkins then invited his other teachers, the Nobel Prize-winning Mexican poet Octavio Paz, and American poet Robert Lowell, to collaborate, sparking the germ of a body of work that has now been ongoing for 45 years.

The works themselves are borne from Perkins’s personal relationships, and reflect the long history of interplay between poets and painters, word and image: from Chinese and Japanese scrolls and Persian miniatures, to the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, William Blake, and the collaboration between the painter Larry Rivers and poet Frank O’Hara in the 1950s. Robert Perkins’s homage to poetry starts with the poet’s handwritten text – in his own words, ‘a self-portrait of the poet in the moment’ – which is then combined with Perkins’s lyrical imagery. The poem itself, the physicality of the letters and words – split open, obscured, fragmented – provides the constant architecture upon which Perkins crafts his thoughtful visual vocabulary. The images follow poetry’s intrinsic grace and compression, and Perkins’s sensitivity to materials – rich pigments and the almost sculptural quality of paper – contributes to a sophisticated balance of word and image.

For example, in a 1989 work inspired by a poem in Seamus Heaney’s book, The Haw Lantern, which describes the felling of a chestnut tree, and metaphorically the loss of the poet’s mother, Perkins depicts a partially split branch with a multitude of tiny, white wood chips spilling across the page. The violence of this imagery mirrors the melancholic poignancy of Heaney’s words: ‘I heard the hatchet’s differentiated/ Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh/ And collapse of what luxuriated/ Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all... Silent, beyond silence listened for.’

The work created in collaboration with Allen Ginsberg begins with a journal entry that, though written decades before Ginsberg’s death, is wholly concerned with mortality: ‘What’s to be done about Death?’ Perkins created swathes of expressionistic colour with crayons, only to cover this abstract base with India ink, the colour peeking through the scraped away ink. As Perkins later recalled: ‘The tension between the suppressed colour and the colour poking through seemed to speak about Allen’s concerns, captured something of his childlike nature.’ There is prescience in Ginsberg’s final line, ‘not to be buried in the cemetery near Newark airport some day?’; the poet lies buried there today.

Not literal representations of the poetry, Perkins’s body of work moves evocatively between word and image. It is, in the words of poet and art critic Ilka Scobie, ‘an elegant dance between poetry’s immaterial words and the grounded practice of his mark making.’

Says Benjamin Spademan: ‘I'm excited to be bringing this exhibition to the gallery. It directly reflects the ethos that I have been trying to develop here, the interaction of books and art. I love the way Robert Perkins immersed himself in modern poetry and found ways of engaging with texts through his art. His catalogue gives profound insights into the creative process, as well as a fund of highly entertaining anecdotes.’