Photo courtesy of Lewis & Clark

Portland Art Museum acquires art professor’s sculpture

The Portland Art Museum (PAM) acquired Associate Professor of Art and Studio Head of Sculpture Jess Perlitz’s sculpture “Burned Beast” earlier this year.

The sculpture, composed of burnt wood and dowels with a matching charcoal shadow, was first created in 2017 as part of an exhibition in the Hoffman Gallery with Associate Professor of Art and Department Chair Joel Fischer.

“The entire show was thinking about art as a tool for meaning making and thinking about how we negotiate the world,” Perlitz said. “Both our desires, and our fears and our hopes, and how that manifests in the way that we organize the world around us.”

This context inspired “Burned Beast,” which, according to Perlitz, pulled visual reference from animals in medieval tapestries. Depictions of animals from this period are notably nondescript and odd-looking to the modern eye. However, at the time, they were used to instill a fear of hell. This intimidating intention yet hobbled, inviting appearance is reflected in Perlitz’s sculpture which looks friendly, but is intended to implicate the viewer.

Grace Kook-Anderson, Arlene and Harold Schnitzer curator of Northwest art, commented on this relationship in a daily art feature on the PAM website.

“Given the title and burned nature of the sculpture, ‘Burned Beast’ seems as if it should be a menacing or ominous presence, however, because of its hobbled legs and tilting head with a seemingly smiling expression, the sculpture is surprisingly charming,” Kook-Anderson said. “The ambiguous creature seems dog-like and its imperfect form becomes endearing. At this moment, as we enter a new year, Perlitz’s ‘Burned Beast’ feels extremely timely, as if it has embodied our recent climate disasters and the pandemic, yet it remains inquisitive and standing.”

The sculpture was purchased by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2019, who donated it to PAM this year. When the academy first purchased “Burned Beast,” they exhibited the work in New York. Perlitz joked about what the process was like for her.

“They flew me out to make the shadow, this smudge on the wall,” Perlitz said. “There was something funny about going across the country with some charcoal and taking 10 minutes to make this shadow on the walls.”

This is the second of Perlitz’s pieces to be acquired, the first of which currently resides in the Boise Art Museum. According to her, it is notable to have a sculpture in particular acquired due to storage demands, though acquisitions in general are significant.

“It’s a really nice form of support because it’s a purchase of work and then it’s in a situation where it has some permanency, as opposed to a gallery exhibition,” Perlitz said. “Once it’s in a collection, then it is shown — it’s not permanently on display.”

Perlitz elaborated that this can lead to a strange feeling, since an artist may not know exactly where their piece is at a given moment. Pieces may be put in storage, brought out by curators or loaned out to other museums. 

Though “Burned Beast” was originally created for a specific exhibition, Perlitz said it fits into broader themes found in her work.

“In my work I am making things that are containers for our fears and desires – the sculptures become ways for us to examine how it is that we make meaning,” Perlitz said. “… They’re really for me, tools to have a conversation and there are multiple conversations we can have with all works, but as a common thread throughout my work, I think there is the conversation (about) how is it that we come to make meaning.”

Currently, Perlitz is on sabbatical and recently taught a workshop and guest lecture at her alma mater, Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. She looks forward to her solo exhibition in HOLDING Contemporary art gallery in downtown Portland later this year. 

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