Juan L. Gomez-Perales

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On The Hunger of the Starlings

by Lynn Millette

Nature's cycles

Nature has it's own way of reminding us that we tread upon a planet on which we exist through the sheer equilibrium of cycles. We see it most clearly at the change of seasons through natural events that subject us to a slow complex process involving time. The need for continual sustenance gave birth to ritual beliefs, superstition and magic that have persisted in parallel to scientific inquiry. The unpredictability that hangs constant in the wake of summer harvests, through trial and error, forced the outcome of food preservation. Perhaps grain left in a Sumerian jar touched by moisture is the genesis of our beloved potions. Circumstance brought on by fermentation gave birth to alcohol.

An artist engaged in his own query

An intriguing room in the artist's house displays instruments of all kinds, musical and scientific. Blue mountain culture meets empirical science. Piano, guitars and a banjo share this space with racks of small carefully labelled bottles. Some liquids are clear, some amber of different shades. There are beakers and glass cylinders -- "Experiments", he says, with a childlike fondness. An artist engaged in his own query. Sometimes knowledge is insufficient.

A long rectangular case (9:07 - 4:35, 2002) stands on its side. Opened, it exposes an implement that speaks of the science of obscure precision. In (78.4 C, 2003) a measure of red marks a tall vertical stick on which is placed, at quarter length, a cork-like object. Reminiscent of a gauge or thermometer, it sits in front of a long rectangular sheet of tar black metal. On its surface is an oxidized silhouette that correlates with the stick. The patina recalls a passed procedure.

Lived experience

In a remote village up the Amazon, Juan Gomez-Perales was presented with what he thought was an empty bottle of Coca-Cola. He woke up the following morning in his hammock on a barge recovering from his initial experience with moonshine.

Years later, a grape vine in front of his house reacquainted the artist with the memory of that time in the forest. This leafy climber proved to be the starting point of a purifying process. It began a quest that has lasted for more than a decade.

In the kitchen, homemade paraphernalia and gadgetry hissed and steamed a comforting sound. There was a galvanized metal bucket and copper pipes that sheened in contrast to the chromed pressure-cooker, spouts and rubber tubes. Thoughts of old-fashioned washtubs, brown jugs and the sound of bluegrass came to mind.
The artist could very well be from the Appalachians. With a slight twang in his voice he can play all of the bluegrass instruments. A solid wood piece (The Seven Coils 1997) carries the essence of this culture through a whimsical assemblage of coil in funnel, seemingly jammed into the jug's mouth. The top and bottom elements of the piece boast fair equilibrium through the use of similar volumes.

Gomez-Perales tends the grape vine that has made its way up several balconies. Neighbours gladly oblige this fruit bearer's climb. Cool greenery that he strings and prunes with care overshadows the house. Insects and birds are its only enemy. Strategies escalate between man and clever bird when sweet fruits hang heavy on the vine. The head of a jet coloured fowl is witness to this experience. It appears oxidized on metal. The only depiction of a living creature (Hunger of the Starling , 2004), it sits in a portrait-like position as a side view bearing the wilful gaze of a worthy opponent.

He leaves most of his materials untouched. When put on a lathe, he simply defines a shape in the wood and moves on. Natural shades dominate most of the pieces. The few elements of colour act as devices that question the idea of function in the sculptures. For example, colour appears on the cork of an Erlenmeyer flask (Sample, 2003) or on a container (Duolian, 2003) rendered from solid wood and painted cumin. Behind the jug, hangs a thin lengthy metal sheet that echoes a moment in time when the container was filled. The sculpture of a wooden beaker (Schematic: Slobber Box, 2003) holds two copper tubes in place. On a sheet of metal above it is etched a path for the pipes to follow. One to the left, one to the right, the opposing pipes imply separation and division, an unavoidable occurrence that is a part of any purification process.

With the muffled sound of grapes popping from crushing pressure, juice comes in streams. As though separating good from bad, the pulp is discarded. The pungent smell of scalding grape juice exudes from a cloud of steam. As it is poured down the drain it twists for a moment in the shape of a star as it swirls down the circular mouth. Once distilled, the product will be put through the process again. Pristine vials await pure extract and time is of the essence; good things come to those who wait.

Holding a bead

Looking through the clear glass of the receiving jug, at the very tip of a spout will appear, at measured intervals, drops that fall and bounce off the liquid surface. Like beads from a broken necklace they will skip to the perimeter of the jug -- a sign of absolute purity.
The artist cuts metal tubing and bends it into cooling spirals that are left unconnected. He fills bottles with wood. There is absolute cohesion of systems where circulation networks are severed (The Seven Coils, 1997), connecting tubes dismantled and mangled (The Man with the Crooked Horn, 2004). The outer shape, the sheer appearance of objects is characteristic to the artist's work. The delicate quality of the diagram of a graph takes on the appearance of a bird's feather (Ethanol Hump, 2004). The surface develops in gradations of tone and perspective suggesting softness or the intricacies of flight.

A stratagem via colour beckons the eye to certain areas, such as in the opening of tubes where he has placed obstructions (Hot and Cold Running Water, 1998). This acts as a means to carry thoughts of severed practicality or obsolescence. The artist filters his experiences and clean lines them into form. They are a schematic section of unseen experience, collected in a flask. He silences the objects transforming them into metaphor.

Solid wood representations of receptacles are placed in front of metal sheets onto which shapes have been etched through oxidation (Sample, 2003). Rich black metal contrasts the pale engraved silhouettes of the bottles. In other instances, the function of the apparatus appears to be reflected on the plaque (Schematic: Slobber Box, 2003) and (78.4 C, 2003). Chalkboard drawings come to mind evocative of a sense of exploration, research and learning.

In the hopes of feeding the hungry, scientific probabilism holds steadfast in the face of natural phenomena. The farmer, through seasonal change will rise with the sun to do the same. There is a kind of science present in everything that we do. The artist explores the specific applied science of industrial brewing but acknowledges the presence of the folksy science of handed-down recipes. The artist merges these perspectives through his work.

Etched images describe patterns of scientific beauty, a molecular structure for alcohol (Diving Duck, 2003), a singular grain of barley etched in ochre (Diastase, 2003) and zigzagged tubing that shows the path of substance in mid-travel from point to point (Flake Stand II, 2001). A magnified perspective of a culture affords a pictorially elegant view of yeast activity (Flocculation, 2003). We are reminded by the artist that small wonders are often unperceived.

To distil or to extract? To remove until what remains is pure in substance.

Bacchus saw the fruits of harvest act as tranquiliser, sedative, stimulant and intoxicant. The nectar that Plato warned against later became Blood-of-Christ and was kissed to sooth life's drudgery. At one time it was believed to counteract senility. Al Kuhul, as referred to in Arabia, served as wages in industrial times but temperance put a stop to that giving birth to crime and prohibition, of which the latter could not continue.

Alcohol's intimacy with agriculture, science and moonshine is brought together through a mason jar, a laboratory flask and a whisky bottle (The Three Sisters, 2003). They are displayed on the floor to remove them from a usual context. Wooden representations project vestiges of their respective functions . The paradox of transparent glass and opaque wood, of object and what is cast, reflect overlapping transparencies of line and curve, of reality and illusion.

In the grain mill (The Man with the Crooked Horn, 2003) there is one block of wood that hasn't been touched but the grain hopper gives the impression that it might actually work. The spiral of copper is a sketchy child-like thing. You know that it's a machine that doesn't work. It encapsulates the artist's desire to somehow make it happen quicker, "Stick in the barley and out it comes." Yet we know that it's a long process. This is a makeshift still that sardonically radiates the capacity to go from grain to blinding spirits at the turn of a lever.

Engaged in his own aesthetics

The apparent presence of illegal substance is a playful edge. His work, rich with subversion is sheltered in an aesthetic defence. It generates musings about the industrial product, about bootlegger families turned into financial empires of the moment or the right to make or grow substance for personal use.

Five mason jars (Four Bottles of Milk, 2003) aligned shoulder to shoulder are painted flat white. Placed in a line-up, they recall the prohibition era practice of urban bootleggers delivering their product disguised as milk. The artist strikes a political chord with a statement as smooth as his own product.

In the basement, rows of bottles will gradually migrate to select shelves where they will await in dark coolness an event of some kind. When uncorked, samples of the liquid will engender opinions on colour and flavour as well as recollections of the harvest. The predominant subject in conversations is about what is inside the bottle.

There is a larger installation made of several elements (Schematic: Spirit Safe II, 2004). Two solid wooden containers are joined by a corroded metal coil. One is in the form of a roughly hewn rectangular block, the other, a chemical flask. Backwoods culture and scientific exploration transpire equally while a bluish metal rod tapers from the pictorial determinant on the wall.

Juan Gomez-Perales explores systems in cycles and observes himself involved in the process. He looks at all the apparatus and liquids and sees them as an artist does, as spirals, tubes and coils that sprout from receptacles filled with colourful and steaming liquids. Artists harbour naïveté dwelling within intelligence. It is a child's perspective that simply refuses to dissipate. Engaged in his own query, he makes it better, fascinated by all of the instruments, by the systems and the outcomes of his product. The spirits are the essence of his efforts, the art, a process distilled.

These artworks express the essence of time itself through cool rains and hot summer afternoons, nighttime's temperatures and morning frost. Perhaps, a means to an end would seem too simple a term to describe a place where art, science and culture blend at the crossroads of experience felt to the core.

Lynn Millette

Originally Published in:
The Hunger of the Starlings - The Artwork of Juan L. Gomez-Perales
2004, Dawson College, ISBN: 1-55016-809-6
Copyright © 2004 by Juan L. Gomez-Perales