Luciano Perna once made a self-portrait by enlarging a close-up photograph of a piece of spaghetti until it exactly matched his height. Among his friends, he is renowned for his knowledge of thrift stores, antique shops, and swap-meets. His uncategorizable art takes many forms, shifting from painting to sculpture and photography to publishing. Perna has made pictures out of coffee grounds and coins, smashed lightbulbs and sand. His sculptures, which sometimes consist of Weber grills, feathers, old motorcycles, and ping-pong balls, give funny physical form to the run-of-the-mill weirdness at the basis of everyday reality.
David Pagel You once made a race car out of BBQ grills and trash cans, and a spider from a toilet seat and crutches. Do you think of these sculptures as high tech, futuristic things converted from leftovers?
Luciano Perna Well, I started by collecting objects and assembling them in an abstract, non-representational way. I was using these objects as if I were using paint: the material they were made of, the color, for the shape, deliberately trying to ignore their original functions. Gradually, I started thinking about using objects to make something that’s more like a picture, that represented something, like the motorcycle. Easy Rider was made out of 45 records and cups and pots and crutches and pie tins and air-horns and a dartboard, among other things. It was a very sentimental piece for me because when I was a teenager in Italy, I had pinned up on my bedroom wall a photograph of Dennis Hopper on his chopper with its stars and stripes gas tank. And so, this home-made motorcycle has autobiographical tones.
DP But you also thought of it as an American image?
LP I did think of it as a comment on what my perception of America was and what it became. Of course it’s very different now, and it keeps changing.
DP So the first image is of the idealized, romantic, bad-boy biker, and the second is of a society defined by mass-produced consumer goods?
LP Well, in terms of the movie itself, its end is not so positive. But back then, I didn’t see the movie, it wasn’t accessible to me. I just saw the pictures, and I imagined what was in the film. I saw the movie much later. So for my sculpture, I was thinking about my changing perceptions of a filmic icon. In that sense I found it rewarding to do that piece.
DP And your race car is a spin off of that?
LP Once I did the motorcycle, I thought about other vehicles of transportation. I started seeing my activity as being something like that of an automotive factory. Actually, originally the car was going to be a dragster, with the body in the shape of Pinocchio’s nose, like 70 feet long, or longer, with shiny convex mirror wheels. But that was not possible, so I settled for a small racing car.
DP Even so, it is a real trick to turn BBQ grills into mag wheels. You look at this conglomeration of objects and you see the race car, and then you start to take it apart conceptually and say, “Oh, that’s a grill set on its side, and that’s a mailbox, and that’s a bathtub mat, and that’s a trash can…”
LP It’s like a drugless hallucination. I’m interested in that hallucinating aspect, not related to drugs.
DP Like when you have two realities and move between them?
LP Sometimes in contradiction with each other.
DP But each sculpture is just made out of this common stuff that’s available to almost anyone.
LP The way it is encoded might make it not so readily available. It is a sculpture; it is three-dimensional. But it comes more from an interest in painting.
DP I was always interested in your use of new objects. You don’t limit yourself to old materials that have a patina of age, or the sentimental attachments of lost and found things. And yet, the BBQ grills have a ‘50s look to them—early space-age, Jetsons look—especially tipped on their sides. They go back and forth in time. Your spider also has the exaggeration of a cartoon.
LP That is more science fiction than the car. A friendly monster, it spreads out to occupy a large space in a very transparent manner.
DP You also photograph spiders you find in your studio and enlarge them on a computer?
LP I’ve enlarged some of the spider photographs. Eventually I would like to process them through a computer to remove from the picture the character of a photograph. I want them to be science fiction pictures.
DP And you’re mostly interested in the delicacy of the line?
LP That attracts me, in terms of putting a picture together. When I photograph them, they move their legs, so I get these “leg” drawings. And, you know, you get different results, different drawings.
DP Do you only take pictures of spiders?
LP I’ve been photographing any insect I discover in my studio. Some that first got my attention were insects that I found eating some books in my library, or even feeding off of some art works that were around. But the ones I find most photogenic are the spiders. Actually, there are many different species of spiders. I’m trying to put together a small book with pictures, and I would like to do it with just spiders.
DP When did you move to Los Angeles?
LP In ‘79.
DP Do you think of yourself as a Californian artist? As an American artist?
LP As an international folkloric artist.
DP International folkloric?
LP Yes, with anxieties to be contemporary, being only coincidental and aspiring to be synchronous. Wow. (laughter) Does that sound good?
DP Too good! But the folkloric part, that has to do with your common materials?
LP Folkloric in the sense that what I do is determined by what I believe in, and what I believe in constantly changes. It’s a day-to-day activity. Today I wake up conceptual, tomorrow I might feel like making a painting, the next day I may be cooking, cooking some spaghetti.
DP Do you ever recycle your work?
LP I try not to. I have, however, disassembled pieces to get refunds for the parts. Once a piece is put together, I tend to leave it as it is, often even if I think I could make an improvement. Changing it or recycling it is kind of like erasing the traces of the process. In fact, some of the assemblage pieces are put together so they can be disassembled and reassembled easily so as to suggest the possibility of change; something that can be pulled apart and put back together in a different way. I’m concerned with the way I put objects together. On the other hand, I’ve done pieces more permanent in character, like collages. They address different issues or problems…like the Paintings by the Pound.
DP This was an exhibition you did in ‘89?
LP Yes. It consisted of eight geometric paintings. There was paint only on the frames, which I considered as an integral part of the paintings. Inside the frames there were geometric compositions made out of pieces of plastic. Different rectangles put together in a larger rectangle.
DP And they had garbage bags stretched over them?
LP No. Transparent plastic and black plastic sheets which are often used to package artworks.
DP You arranged them in Mondrian-like configurations?
LP Exactly. These works are like Erector Sets or LEGO kits, you have these parts, and you can build one thing, and then you pull them apart and you can build something else.
DP Perpetually in a state of potential…
LP It’s also about seeing, in the materials that one uses, more than one thing. Of taking different shapes and forms and being able to read different things into them.
DP Your Paintings by the Pound also had weights, sinkers for fishing lines hidden behind the plastic?
LP Yes. They were sold by the pound, at two hundred dollars a pound. I wanted to include an element that was not to be perceived visually. That’s why I used the transparent and black plastics. You can see through one, but not the other. In the 16-pounder, the weights were partially concealed, while in the 12-pounder the weights were all exposed. I was interested in addressing, in an abstract way, a rhetorical mechanism that you can use in art.
DP You mean addressing the tricks of illusionism?
LP No. I was more concerned with how information is made available. Paintings traditionally suggest windows. A landscape painting on a wall suggests a view of a landscape as if it were a view outside the window. When I installed the paintings in the gallery, they functioned in this way; they really read as windows. And windows, rhetorically, let you see through them. It’s kind of an imposition. By the same character they hide the wall. Windows act as if the wall weren’t there.
DP How do your works relate to one another? As a collection? A series? A constellation of components?
LP I see them as an interrelated, extendable set, as opposed to a way of working in which you try to address a finite number of issues in one piece.
DP You always spread it around.
LP Not that my work is spread out, but I am interested in how it works as a total array of parts.
DP You mean by emphasizing the relationships between pieces?
LP Right, because eventually you hope that in the in-between is where meaning…
DP ...appears, or flashes out.
LP Right. I guess it’s just a preference because what I want to do is addressed best in that strange, un-picturable space that resists definition.
DP So it’s like the parts of the car or the spider or the motorcycle. They add up to something more while remaining exactly what they are.
LP Exactly, exactly. My sculptures and paintings are both static and transitory, obvious and indecipherable. What I want is movement between immediate recognizability and something more elusive. It’s a matter of not discriminating, or of discriminating very finely.