from the vault: my Artforum review of Perry House, 1993


Houston painter Perry House died in July 2020. He had a long, productive career and will be missed. Back in the '90s I reviewed his show at Davis/McClain gallery for Artforum and later organized an exhibition of his paintings at Gray Matters in Dallas. The Artforum review appears in text form below with a couple of minor tweaks to restore my original wording.

My Gray Matters essay [PDF] waxed more enthusiastic than the one below. For the magazine I wanted to champion a Texas artist lesser known in NYC so I indulged in some procatalepsis, anticipating questions that I felt would arise in a less nurturing critical environment. Whereas catalog writing is typically more boosterish.

A struggle I had with Artforum early on was over what image to use. I had sent a print of The Curtain, The Ship of Fools to accompany the review and then someone at the magazine contacted the gallery to request additional images. Possibly the art director's convenience in laying out pages guided image choices as much as any critical judgment, but it was annoying that they ultimately ran an image of work that I had criticized! (The editor later apologized for this.)

Houston Reviews, November 1992
Perry House

Perry House bases his paintings on an assortment of recurring motifs he calls his “cast of characters,” shapes that combine aspects of sculpture, furniture, architecture, and everyday objects, many of which symbolize the artist’s past experiences. The names assigned to these motifs (“The Ball,” “The Throne/Chair,” “The Cash Register,” and so on) are individually mundane but cumulatively poetic; their obsessive reappearance as images in paintings—isolated, abstracted, or fused with quasi-Modernist patterns—gives them a talismanic power.

This vocabulary of private symbols could be pretentious were it not for House’s sense of humor, vented through confidently eccentric brushwork and a caricaturist’s knack for exaggeration: the crisscrossing stripes receeding into space in The Screen, 1991, for example, suggest a minimalist grid formation enacted by a regiment of night crawlers. Similarly, the scrollwork pattern that crops up in many paintings might be as romantic as the Old South wrought-iron decor it recalls—if one overlooks the fact that the scrolls bulge and undulate like creatures in a Fleischer Brothers cartoon. Equally deflating is House’s handling of paint. Eschewing oils as “too seductive,” he badgers acrylics into messy, anxious life, turning their uninspiring pastiness into something resembling a virtue. A surface complexity arises partly from rampant overpainting: beneath each final coat, the textures of obliterated images continue to assert themselves.

House recently declared his intent to explore “the fine line between humor and horror, and to reestablish mass and volume in abstract painting in the most severe manner.” The former aim suggests a modest sort of content; the latter, perhaps, a Johnny-come-lately challenge to the formalist mandate of flatness. Fortunately the artist’s penchant for thematic understatement doesn’t get in the way of his painting. House’s work hints at George Condo’s irreverence and Ross Bleckner’s personalization of the impersonal without becoming derivative. In The Curtain, The Ship of Fools, 1991, a faux-romantic “character” floats against a field of intense blue, sandwiched between black and white curtains of Op art stripes-cum-scrollwork. This might be Condo’s version of Bleckner, or it might not; given the geographic and contextual distance between Texas and New York (and given the position of the painting within House’s own oeuvre), it’s probably sufficient to say that it represents the high-water mark of a parallel lineage. A more meaningful precedent, of course, would be the late work of Philip Guston, who paved the way for many painters to question, even mock, painting, while zealously continuing to pursue it.

In addition to exhibiting a group of superb paintings on canvas and paper, House arranged a row of painted sculptures on the carpeted floor of the gallery, maquettelike constructions depicting his entire cast of characters. Though these quirky objects made a certain kind of sense against the grimy concrete floor of the artist’s studio, when they were expected to command a major portion of the gallery’s slick space they looked merely academic, especially in contrast to paintings that are anything but that.

—Tom Moody

Other writing on House from this blog

Perry House at Gray Matters

Dallas, Texas, October 29 - December 11, 1993
Tom Moody, Guest Curator and Essayist

"Perry House's Awkward Sublime" [PDF] (gallery-published essay)
Exhibition checklist [PDF]
Review by Janet Tyson, Fort Worth Star-Telegram [PDF]

click or tap images to see enlargements:


Drawings, 1993, acrylic on paper, each 30 x 22 inches
see checklist for titles


The Mirror, 1993, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 inches


The Table, The House (Red), 1993
acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 inches


Installation view


The Fountain, The Dead Tree, The X-House, 1993
acrylic on canvas, 37 x 108 inches


The Screen, 1991, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 48 inches


The Stairs, 1992, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 48 inches


Installation view


Installation view


No Title (Taylor), 1988
acrylic and enamel on canvas, 21 x 18 inches


The Rudderless Ship, 1991, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 60 inches


Installation view

These are scans (from slides) of artworks as they appeared in the show, with gallery lighting. They are not meant to be official artist's slides of these paintings. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram review includes a photo of a painting, The Bridge. Despite what the caption says, that piece was not in the show. Many thanks to David Szafranski of Gray Matters for all his work on this exhibition. And may Perry House, who died in July of 2020, rest in peace. He was a great painter, whose reputation deserves to grow.

back to selected critical writing

Perry House, part II


7-20-09, acrylic on Arches Aquarella, 22 x 30, 2009

Painting by Houston artist Perry House, who was written about here a few years ago. This new work appeared in a show that just closed at D.M. Allison gallery. (hat tip JP)

The gallery says that

While [the Helter Skelter series] is not necessarily a sequel to his Happyville series, in the artist's latest body of work the colors are still indeed joyful, there is plenty of perspective, with recognizable architectural elements not evident in earlier works.

Those elements actually were in some of House's earliest art and its nice to see them back with a new De Chirico-esque pallette and mood. One might add, De Chirico in the wake of a tornado--the scuola metafisica painter was never this agitated.

Perry House

perry house 1

perry house 2

perry house

I had slides of this Houston-based artist's work, which I shot back in the early '90s when I organized a show of his paintings, and felt like scanning them. Click on the lower two for enlarged views. The multipanel piece at the bottom was an older work, possibly dating from the '70s, that was rolled up in the artist's studio.

I like the combination of Di Chirico-esque mood and modern emptied-out-ness. The bottom image has a underground comix feel but is also classically surreal. At the risk of sounding like ad copy, no one in Houston (or anywhere) does work quite like this. Possibly some of the Chicago imagists but without their illustrator-y sense of polish.

The paintings are done in acrylic. House has a technique of layering washes of thinned out black over a finished image to give a kind of fractal scrim livening up the paint's inherent flat inertness. It's kind of an artificial aging patina but has nothing to do with making it look old--just more complex.

The imagery is a series of personal symbols that recur from painting to painting and are constantly mutating and being layered and violated by Modernist stripes, dots, etc. There is something cabalistic about it but House isn't a mystic or a new-ager. He talks about the symbols in an almost childlike way but his approach to assembling a picture is quintessentially grown up.

new page: selected critical writing

I've added a new page to my blog sidebar (the thing that appears at the bottom of the page on a phone) called Selected Critical Writing.
Actually it's an older page from my Digital Media Tree days that I've been updating. Several new pages have been added, linked from that one. The contents are:

Selected writing for print publications:

• "Paradise/Paradox," Sculpture, March 2004, pp 71-72 [image and text]

• "Palo Alto Dreamin': Towards a New Digital Expression(ism)," Art Papers, November/December 2001, pp 20-24 [images and text]

• "Compression" at Feigen Contemporary, Art Papers, May/June 2001 [text]

• noto (Carsten Nicolai): "The Trouble Is (Not) With Your Set" VERY No. 8, October 2000 [image and text]

• Michael Rodriguez, Miami-Dade Community College, catalog essay, June/July 2000 [images and text]

• "Secondary Structures": Rachel Harrison, Ross Knight, Michael Phelan, Sculpture Magazine, June 2000 [PDF] [text] [link]

• "Laura Parnes and Sue de Beer: Double Your Transgression, Double Your Fun," VERY, Fall 1999 [text] [link]

• Nina Katchadourian at Debs & Co., New York, NY Artforum, Summer 1999 [image and text]

• Ross Knight at Team Gallery, New York, NY Artforum, April 1999 [image and text]

• Drew Dominick at Jose Freire, New York, NY, New Art Examiner, February 1996 [images and text]

• Jack Featherly at Team Gallery, catalog essay, March 2002 [images and text]

Curated exhibitions:

• Perry House at Gray Matters, Dallas, Texas, October 1993 [images] [PDF of essay]

• "Thread" exhibition catalog, Cristinerose Gallery, New York, NY, September 4 - October 4, 1997 [images and text]

Web-only (self-published):

• "One Hour Photo: Portrait of an Artist," 2002 [image and text]

• "Video Games and Contemporary Sculpture," 2002 [images and text]


• jenghizkhan [click here]

• Jack Featherly [click here]

• Doris Piserchia (with Joanna Pataki) [click here]