Ideas that look great on paper
Simon Periton is best known for his doilies, large, impossibly delicate paper cut-outs that fall somewhere between painting and sculpture. His subject matter, though, is often anything but delicate, drawing on images of terrorists, punk heroes or the darker side of the natural world, and his work rests on this awkward marriage of precise, rather prissy technique and the representation of aggressive symbols.
For this, his second solo exhibition at the Modern Institute, Periton has taken off at a tangent, presenting works on paper which combine collage, stencil spray-painting, assemblage and, occasionally, cutting.
The large-scale piece Dogger is a skull-like face with multiple eyes, some spray-painted, some fringed in tinsel. Shell Queen is blurred, like a doubly-exposed photograph, with a barnacle-encrusted mussel shell standing in for a nose. An untitled work has baubles glued to it, either suggesting or obscuring a mouth. A flock of butterflies, cut from the surface of a sheet of found paper, threaten to escape from the surface of Baroness.
This building-up of found objects is matched by layering of both paint and paper. All the works here have been densely, even relentlessly, layered, with stencilled forms vying for attention, the intensity of the repeated images enhanced by the use of fluorescent orange, green and yellow spray paint.
These works, though they stand alone, see an artist exploring his own practice. The use of stencilling is not a new direction for Periton, but a return to the past: he first trained his scalpel on a sheet of paper after noticing a discarded doily he had used as a stencil on the floor of his studio. These new images acknowledge that beginning, using the honeycombs, floral motifs and DayGlo colour choices familiar from Periton’s cut-paper works to layer up a self-referential palimpsest.
There are, too, works in which the layers combine to form a discrete, delightfully complex language of reference and counter-reference. Bonfire is a silhouette of the Queen, stolen from a Cecil Beaton photograph, covered over with tiny reproductions of the anarchist movement’s Circle-A monogram. And so, without directly alluding to it, Periton turns Beaton’s respectful portrait into an analogue of Jamie Reid’s cover art for the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen, itself a collage resting on a found image.
Periton also explores his influences more directly, drawing on two unconventional portraitists. The references to Man Ray and the “rayograph” technique he developed with Lee Miller are clear, with Periton’s stencilled silhouettes matching Ray’s cameraless photography of objects arranged on photographic paper.
Clearer still, The Lord Warden borrows directly from Giuseppe Arcimboldo. The sixteenth-century painter, whose portraits involved faces built from fruits and flowers, might not seem an obvious precursor for Periton to light upon, but both revel in failed attempts to reconcile opposites, Periton with his delicate doilies set up to clash with violent symbology, Arcimboldo with his corruption of still life to make portraits. Both, too, are fond of a pun.
Periton’s Catwoman, a portrait made by delineating a woman’s head and shoulders in spray paint over kitschy wrapping paper festooned with cat faces, shares a winking sensibility with works by Arcimboldo such as The Cook or The Vegetable Gardener, painted to be hung upside down or the right way up, according to preference.
This makes for a fascinating glimpse into Periton’s practice and it is easy to lose oneself examining the giddy complexity of his layers, but this series of portraits is not quite a match for the doilies.
One piece in Periton’s usual style is included, Addi, an intricate, wreath-like floral rendering of that familiar anarchist monogram in mirrored blue perspex, burnished to a reflective sheen.
It is almost a shame that Addi is on show here. It is deceptively simple, pared down - visually and conceptually speaking - and so only serves to emphasise that the busy overpainting and frantic layering of the works on paper is a less satisfying tactic than the cool-headed cutting that is Periton’s trademark.
It is almost as if Periton has turned to the works on show here in order to get something out of his system. In sampling new subjects, exposing his influences, reworking old motifs and piling image upon image in a DayGlo riot of references - might Periton be working to clarify and condense ideas that will be further explored with greater restraint in future cut-paper pieces? If so - if these new works are to be seen as something akin to studies - this exhibition is more intriguing than it might at first appear, offering a new route into understanding Periton’s wider practice, rather than a frenetic summary of it.
This review was first published in The Herald on January 26th, 2007.