James Perkins Buries Silk Canvases at the Beach to Make Vivid Abstractions

Ayanna Dozier
Jun 24, 2022 8:01PM

James Perkins in Fire Island, New York. Photo by Bryson Malone. Courtesy of the artist and Hannah Traore Gallery.

James Perkins makes the ocean, weather, dirt, and time his collaborators across his large-scale abstractions. These works—what he calls “post-totem” structures—can take years to complete. Perkins stretches swathes of silk over wooden frames, then partially buries or simply places these structures at beaches or in woods, allowing the elements and time to make their mark.

After several months or, at times, up to two years, Perkins recovers his works, unearthing intensely pigmented, monochromes that appear to be sun-bleached, imprinted with water corrosion, or stained with other natural forces. He removes the silk from the structure, then presents it anew, as a painting. Perkins’s ritual process breathes life into the work; the abstractions become ethereal and feel as though they were painted with colored light and time.


Across his work, Perkins resurrects the genre of 20th-century action painting, making time-based labor central to the process of creation. For his latest body of work—on view in his solo show “Burying Painting” at Hannah Traore Gallery through July 30th—the New York–based artist created his structures on Fire Island, New York. Left there for varying periods of time, the structures intermingled with the wind, water, snow, sand, and animals to reveal their final form.

Installation view, James Perkins, “Burying Painting” at Hannah Traore Gallery, New York. Courtesy of the artist and Hannah Traore Gallery.

While “totem” usually refers to an animal or object that is the spiritual stand-in for something else, Perkins situates his work as “post-totems” to signify that he is creating with nature, which literally leaves a spiritual impact onto the work itself.

“We assume this ritual of the way painters or artists work in studios, but I was interested in the least studied rituals of how land artists worked and where there was space to make a significant contribution,” Perkins told Artsy. By evoking land artists, Perkins harnesses the transformative impact of nature and draws out the physicality and impact of painting as something beyond the enclosed space of the artist studio.

James Perkins’s “post-totem” structures in progress in Fire Island, New York. Courtesy of the artist and Hannah Traore Gallery.

Perkins’s road to ritual was not born of an interest in spirituality, but rather from playing sports in his youth. “Quickly, rituals not only became a practice for performance, but also [a way] to get out of my head and a way to work through problems,” he explained. This connection between athletic rituals and art did not come immediately for Perkins, though. That leap occurred through his desire to feel more physically and emotionally connected to his art while pursuing his MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York from 2011 to 2013. He was also influenced by the conceptual art criticism of Donald Judd, in addition to the works of Robert Irwin and Richard Serra.

Installation view, James Perkins, “Burying Painting” at Hannah Traore Gallery, New York. Courtesy of the artist and Hannah Traore Gallery.

These writings, along with the aforementioned artists’ craft, helped Perkins uncover a type of universal beauty in his work. While his practice may be highly specific and intellectual, Perkins works with materials like nature and time to construct work that anyone can approach and enjoy just like, as he said, “a sunset.”

Though Perkins’s emphasis on nature is remarkable, so, too, is the way he slows down time. “Today’s world has a way of speeding up time,” Perkins explained. “Time begets beauty for me as well. Like a well-worn pair of jeans, or your favorite T-shirt, or a vintage watch or Porsche, it becomes only more beautiful, cozy, and meaningful with time.”

Ayanna Dozier
Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s Staff Writer.