76 RUE DE TURENNE 75003 PARIS
Perrotin is pleased to present Head Over Heels, a solo exhibition by artist Josh Sperling organized across two exhibition spaces of the Marais' gallery.
For Josh Sperling, painting is not just a matter of dipping a brush into color and applying it to a ground. It is an elaborate process involving both the artist’s hand and digital technologies. Drawing on a wide array of influences that include the modular compositions of minimalism, the shaped canvases of Frank Stella, and the Op Art of Victor Vasarely, Sperling not only paints a painting, he reinvents and reconstructs painting using new tools and methods, exploiting its edges and overlaps with sculpture, architecture and design.
Sperling's paintings resemble puzzles, strictly mapped and assembled with no intermediary spaces. He begins by designing the shapes of his works in black and white line drawings, alternating between tablet and paper. These shapes are defined, mainly, not by what is applied to the front of the canvas, but by the network of stretchers behind it. Few painters devote so much attention to the design and execution of these underlying structures. Elaborately constructed armatures made of wooden bars and panels, they resemble topographic maps: sculptures in and of themselves. And yet he makes great efforts to hide them behind seamlessly stretched canvases.
Fabricating these stretchers and getting the canvas tight around their eccentric forms is a demanding skill. Sperling attributes his appreciation for craftsmanship to his background; he was raised in a family of five generations of woodworkers and furniture makers, and the construction of his paintings draws deeply from the repertoire of these trades. Digitally crafted on a computer-controlled cutting machine and assembled by hand, each painting comprises many interlocking elements –over one hundred in certain pieces. He uses these elements to create volume, modulate color through light and shadow, and play with our perception. The intricate armatures give a three-dimensional, beveled effect to his shapes, and make his canvases float off the wall and project into space. The front and the back of the art – the image and its underlying construction – are contiguous and mutually supporting.
On the gallery's first floor, the artist presents a new series of works based on an elementary compositional unit he has designed resembling a bullseye: a signature motif. In earlier paintings, he used only two of these shapes, interconnecting them in a “double bubble” motif. Here, however, they become the building blocks for experimenting with a wide variety of forms. Shapes resembling bicycle chains, zigzags and letters of the alphabet are repeated and interlaced into larger squares or rectangles. Like Mozart’s game of musical dice, where measures of music are shuffled to create new variations, Sperling generates with each work a unique configuration. Using a simple shape to create multiple permutations, Sperling playfully combines the pleasure of variety with a pride in ingenuity and mastery.
Sperling purposefully leaves these canvases unpainted to successively emphasize and de-emphasize the varied patterning in his work. In the first gallery, he alternates rectilinear chains of bullseyes covered in raw cotton and linen to create two clearly differentiated grey and off-white concentric designs. In the second, he presents a series of six monochrome works using only raw cotton. This lack of contrast and color variation stills the fluctuations of the patterns, making them difficult to discern.
The regularities and rhythms of these monochromes latch on to the flow of our sensory experience, like a tune that keeps running in our head and asked to be hummed. At the same time, they hold our gaze and keep us scanning for a shift or break in repetition, our attention fluctuating between auto-pilot assimilation and heightened awareness. Sperling invites us to slow down and experience the work in its material presence: “I want the viewer to think that they are all the same, and then slowly notice the subtle variety of each.”
Our brains are wired to recognize patterns and probe for irregularity. This drives our innate attraction for ornamental design and the geometry of nature - our pleasure in contemplating things like Islamic tilework or the formation of a crystal. In his study of decorative art, E. H. Gombrich argued that this feeling of aesthetic delight lies “somewhere between boredom and confusion.” Sperling, too, is fascinated by symmetries in nature and the patterns of ornament. Among the many visual references in his studio are books on Art Deco jewelry and plant biology. Sperling plays with the balance between chaos and order, regularity and irregularity that characterize many structures of the natural world, as well as the ornamental patterns we humans consciously produce.
In the third gallery, a sudden visual crescendo awaits us as the exhibition progresses from the subtle play of light and shadow of the monochromes to splashes of vibrant color in his AbEx series. The artist compares this to wine tasting, where “you begin with the light bodied wines before moving onto full-bodied flavors.” Here, cloudy patches of pale peach, pastel pink, emerald green, and ultramarine blue stipple their canvases like a tie-dye, with mottled and marbled blots. To create these painterly effects, Sperling works on the floor dripping and squeezing acrylic paint onto the surface of a wet canvas, using a stencil to delineate his double bubbles before cutting out and assembling the work. Employing abstract expressionist painting techniques, he introduces an element of spontaneity into his rigorous geometric grid, disrupting the legibility of the double bubble pattern by divorcing color from form.
Inspired by the color theories of the Bauhaus masters Johannes Itten and Josef Albers, Sperling is deeply engaged in the study of color and its effects on human perception. He hand mixes his pigments, documenting his recipes for color in meticulously kept notebooks. Sperling’s concentric hexagons evolve out of these studies. Color gradients of green, yellow, and violet are painted onto chains of bullseyes that are wrapped around one another in a centrifugal pattern. These incremental color variations make the picture plane seem to advance towards or recede from the viewer, creating a vibration and movement reminiscent of the work of another admirer of Josef Albers, Victor Vasarely.
In fact, one of Victor Vasarely’s best-known insights thrums through my mind when viewing these works: “Every form is a base for color. Every color is an attribute of form.” On display on the second floor, two more series of paintings that escape the traditional confines of the square or rectangle. Whimsical, brightly colored linear works of large looping cursives called Swoops are presented alongside flat planes of interlocking shapes titled Repeater Composites. All of these works are based on single line drawings, but in the Repeater Composites, these drawings are imperfectly duplicated by hand, creating a series of curvilinear canvases made of interlocking panels that extend vertically, horizontally and diagonally across the wall.
One work - hung across from large yellow calligraphic flower from the Swoops series- looks like it was designed using a spirograph, with bullseyes inserted like nipples in the middle of each looping ellipse. In the Repeater Composites, planes seem to pass over other shapes – or are truncated as still more planes pass over them. Sperling creates an illusion of transparency by alternating flat muted colors with mead-notebook style textured surfaces, the fanciful juxtaposition of hue and pattern inspired by the late work of Roy Lichtenstein.
Although Sperling does not want his work to be “about craft,” the kind of skill, care, and materials-based knowledge he deploys is profoundly artisanal. His stretchers are digitally carved, yet his works are impeccably hand-finished and painted. This ambiguity – the toggling between the digital and the analogue – makes his works of art not only conceptually rigorous and visually appealing, but also thoroughly original.
- Leanne Sacramone, Senior Curator, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain
Born in 1984 in Oneonta, New York, USA
Lives and works in Ithaca, New York, USA
Josh Sperling draws on the language of minimalist painting from the 1960s and 1970s, primarily working with shaped canvases. He crafts intricate plywood supports over which canvas is stretched and painted in a signature palette of saturated, sometimes clashing colors. In their three-dimensionality, his works blur the lines between painting and sculpture, image and object. Mining a wide range of sources, from design to art history, Sperling has crafted a unique visual vocabulary remarkable for its expressive quality and irrepressible energy.