How exactly to characterize Perihelion Arts? As a little shop of horrors, delights and complexities? That seems just about right. Not that this art gallery/bookstore and occasional music venue is teeny. The good-sized space with its pocked concrete floors and white-and-black interior adds heft to the oasis of art life at Grand, Roosevelt and 15th Avenue. More important, Perihelion Arts elicits disquiet, pleasure, perplexity -- and any combo of the three -- on a consistent basis. The current show, "Intimacy & Proximity: The Art of Jason D'Aquino," doesn't disappoint in this regard, but more on that in a moment. First the gallery.
I have yet to walk into the Perihelion and not feel vaguely disconcerted by the choices proprietors Amy Young and Douglas Grant make. Take John John Jesse's stylized India ink and marker works (up during Art Detour). In pieces with names like The Suicide Twins of St. O'Reilly, The Dirty Angel's Caress Part III or Today's Communion Wafer Tastes Like Whiskey, Jesse has set his Catholic schoolboy upbringing aflame, stoking it with refined but pornographic images of elongated Art Deco-type female figures doing very un-Deco-like things. He calls this work demonica or catholica erotica. From a distance, the small, vertical pieces (usually about 6 by 17 inches) beckon with prissy beauty. Standing smack in front of them, I'm repelled by their sex-death-religious insistence. (What can I say? Depictions of knives in any proximity to vaginas looking like gashes unsettle me every time.) I appreciate the rectory-induced fixation; the twisted, gifted craft of them. But I confess they're not my taste.
"Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing," Picasso once said, adding, "Taste is the enemy of creativity." Whether Picasso was spot-on is debatable, but taste is a tricky matter when it comes to art spaces. Galleries require commitment, demanding that we return again and again. This habit builds trust, if not the taste, of the vision of a gallery's owners. They may push you in a direction you would rather avoid (John John Jesse's, for instance). Or nudge you toward art you had no inkling you'd be touched by. Which brings me back to Perihelion's Doug Grant and Amy Young.
I first met the pair over drinks at the Bikini Lounge, the brilliant dive a door down from their gallery. Young, 34, has green and red stars inked on her wrists, long, dark hair and alert soft-green eyes. Grant's short hair and goatee could signal the required accessories of the hipster uniform, but his tattoos and his piercing are too well-worn. Even exhausted -- and with a gallery and full-time day jobs, who wouldn't be? -- the two are animated when talking about the things that led them to become gallery owners. For instance: the occult. (Many of the volumes on the bookstore shelves are about magic. Looking for the works of Alistair Crowley? Look no further.) Or music.
They relocated from New York City last August and opened Perihelion in October. This is the second time around in this sun-seared burg for the two. Grant, 37, who claims to be a misanthrope but offers no compelling evidence of this, was here in the '80s. "Doing psychedelics and going to punk shows," he says. Remembering the old Madison Square Gardens, the professional wrestling venue converted, just barely, into a club, Grant recalls wistfully, "The bands played inside the wrestling ring, which had a chain-link fence around it. There was no stage to dive off of so the punks would climb the fence."
Young, who lived in Phoenix in the mid-1990s, was also steeped in punk. ("When I was about 17, one of my girlfriends played a Throbbing Gristle record for me. I knew then it was the best thing I'd ever heard.") In her late teens, in Cleveland, she started promoting bands. In New York she was a drummer.
"When RE/Search came out with the industrial culture handbook," says Grant, reminiscing about one of the go-to magazines of iconoclast aesthetics, "band members would list the books they were reading and the CDs they bought." This acrid brew of art, music, culture shaped them, and that gives Perihelion its peculiar flavor.
The other night I knocked on the locked glass double-doors to the gallery. This part of town still requires you to pay attention when you're wandering the streets. I wanted to look again at Perihelion's latest: Jason D'Aquino's one-man show.
It was late and very hushed on the street. Salem, the big black cat, had laid claim to the chair near the display counter. Miss Monkey, a shy miniature of a puss, was nowhere to be found. Through the doors, I could see D'Aquino's drawings lining the walls. But I couldn't make them out. Indeed, you can hardly make out these delicate graphite drawings standing two feet in front of them -- make that one foot. That's part of the point.
Here's what D'Aquino said in an artist statement about the work he creates with the help of high-powered magnification glasses: "[works] of such proportions must be viewed at very close proximity. The necessary intimacy rules out casual observation entirely."
Okay, so D'Aquino is a bit of a control freak. But for all his precision rendering, his tiny worlds aren't precious or cloying. They force you to concentrate. There are his portraits drawn on the inside cover of matchbooks, displayed in minuscule black frames. Santa and Tom Waits stare out from the smallest of frames in exquisite detail. But more impressive are the pieces that detail the myriad ways in which fairy tales and children's books lodged and splintered in D'Aquino's imagination. In the timely Happy Thoughts, Saddam Hussein floats like a zaftig Tinkerbell above a goofily smiling George W. as Peter Pan. In the distance are the World Trade Center towers. Beneath the two troubling sprites play (if you dare to call it that) three children: one crawling, one with a skeletal face, and one wearing a gas mask.
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Piss Boy delivers a similar dose of bittersweet melancholy. Drawn on an upside down postcard, a slump-shouldered lad with a death mask face looks like he's been condemned to a permanent time-out. A baseball bat and ball rest near the stool Piss Boy sits on; so does a fish bowl.
Granted this sounds more like a slap than a tickle. But D'Aquino's images are so delicate -- fine-lined and faint simultaneously -- that they appear as if they are emerging out of a fog. Like the sad, unforgettable bison head in In Conjuctio, they leave an impression.
But then this is often the outcome of a visit to Perihelion. Pieces are likely to ink your memory with images. Then send you back into the night, worrying about the mark they've left long after you've walked to your car.