On ViewRachel Uffner Gallery
March 12 – May 14, 2022
Just Living the Dream at Rachel Uffner Gallery includes paintings and sculptures that freeze moments in dreamscape and challenge the lucidity of immortality. Elbert Joseph Perez’s sobering humor and historical fixation instill an anxiety-inducing literalness, crying out from somewhere between the borrowed opulence of historical, still-life masterpieces, and a gravitational interest in the concept of “existence,” described by the artist as a “baseline misery.”
In Duhkha Aisle (2022), Perez paints the torturous hell of asking for help at your local hardware store. Drips of sweat run down the foregrounding ceramic duck’s forehead as the frightening sight of orange flames engulfing the canvas animate the undeniable wrath of an authoritative, Home Depot cap-wearing snake. This painting nods to a Buddhist ideology where Duhkha translates to “pain” and “unsatisfactoriness,” in summary, to life’s mundanity. Perez takes advantage of his animals to capture the sensations of banality found in having to ask where something is, or what aisle one could find it in. The tension that viewers witness in Duhkha Aisle is a type of modern-day hell—found in the ubiquity of transactional bleakness.
Perez collects religious theories, philosophies, and miniature ceramics. Throughout his show, painted animals are glorified as totemic symbols, yet are used to act out humans’ spiritual poverty. In this manner, the artist playfully contrasts his work with the richness and wealth seen in still-life oil paintings by artists such as Elias Vonck (1605–52), who depicted gorgeously dead birds during the Dutch Golden Age. In Thoughts of Mercy and Grace (2022), Perez has captured a moment of serenity for a duckling imagining an apocalypse. It is unclear if the audience is merely witnessing the baby bird in peaceful rest abound comfy sheets, or if the creature is as dead as its own dream-bubble rumination. The same ambiguity is found in the The Three Stains (2022), a porcelain group made up of a miniature lamb, pony, and swan that sit on a plinth below a nefariously suspended hammer. The cuteness of Perez’s animals is unwavering, even against the uncertainty of whether they are already dead, softly sleeping, or on the verge of being shattered.
In Divine Light Severed (2022), a grassy, distant landscape against a starry midnight-blue sky is illuminated by candlelight. The painting anticipates an end to the landscape’s mood lighting, with human hands shown at the ready to extinguish its magnificent flame with scissors. The candlestick surrealistically shares its form with a rearing, metallic gold horse—seductive and reflective throughout its slow, burning cessation. Before the flames’ untimely severance, we are reminded of the inevitability of death, as Perez pays homage to Hans Holbein the Younger’s famous painting The Ambassadors. The 1533 oil-on-oak still-life portrait’s historically pivotal and striking anamorphic skull lures viewers into an unexpected gaze that is extremely hard to ignore once recognized. Adopted a lot more gracefully by Perez, Divine Light Severed’s flames gradually reveal a paralleling memento mori. A white, whispering skull lays in the painting’s luscious lower third, provoking viewers and catching them entirely off guard. Combined with the unconventional quirks Perez uses to dim the flame, the signification of mortality forces an appreciation of the artist’s sense of humor—one that’s getting darker by the minute.
Just Living the Dream encapsulates the fragility of precious, cute, or in some instances holy subject matter, and twists the figments of one’s imagination that awaken from the artist’s masterful oil paintings and kitschy sculptural displays. Perez tortures viewers’ anxiety and natural sympathy, and considers whether or not the reality of mundanity, or the fears of hypothesized hells are, in fact, still worth living through.