Art Lies, Volume 3, October-November 1994

PERRY HOUSE'S "BROOCHES AND OTHERS"
Davis/McClain Gallery, June 9 through July 2
by Elizabeth McBride
Perry House describes the series of paintings
which opened at Davis/McClain on June 9 as the
Brooch paintings, a tribute to his Southern childhood
and the aunts and grandmothers who wore brooches
as they went about their duties holding the families
together. Painted on abstract patterned backgrounds,
the asymmetrical organic shapes which represent the
brooches seem fantasy laden, more threatening than
the decorative pins they represent, while the gems
which decorate them are of an equally fantastical
color and clarity. Thus House's description penetrates
only the accessible surface. Hidden behind it is a
complex richness to which the painter has left us
clues. As a provocation, he has also given the works
an ominous if beautiful presence.
In college, House decided he wanted a certain
elegance in his painting. A major challenge for him
has been to achieve that elegance in the medium of
acrylics, which he finds fundamentally ugly. He
thinks consciously of image as challenge rather than
content, and of the technical problems he has to solve
to make his paintings the way he envisions them. Be-
coming dissatisfied with flatness in painting, with the
restrictions of abstraction in general and of acrylic
paints, he assumed the task of bringing mass and
volume into his abstract paintings.
Before his previous show at Davis/McClain,
House was painting primarily in black and white to
achieve a certain simplicity, defining shapes and
suggesting psychological states, using repetitive pat-
terns of New Orleans wrought iron, for example,
both as background and as punctuation. For his
own sake he then constructed what he called a "Cast
of Characters," small models of the shapes in the
paintings. This mastery of shapes, House feels, was
necessary before he mastered the bold colors he now
employs. In the Brooch paintings, he has given us
backgrounds to the images - casually drawn geomet-
ric grids, New Orleans wrought iron scrollwork, or
even a hint of weather, the closest the paintings come
to the real world. House says he located the work on
a background in an attempt to avoid surrealism, yet it
is there and is perhaps inevitable, because the South
itself was surreal.

istic beauty almost seemed misplaced on the mis-
shapen shields which served as dull decorations.
Asymmetrical and oddly formed, the brooches them-
selves resembled a fetus damaged by chemicals, or a
colony of cancer cells. They seemed so forbidding
that I wondered if I would be able to enter the work
and share the secrets. It was the mystery of this for-
bidding surface which finally captured me. What I
first imagined in response to the paintings was a
panorama of feudalism not unlike the social land-
scape of the old South. Inspiring memories of Medie-
val seals and shields, or even cylindrical seals from
ancient kingdoms, the brooches present the Southern
woman as a form of perfection, like a central goddess
flanked by an ancient, worshipful pair of animals.
The jewels themselves shine like nobles on horseback
riding fully armed and with their capes pinned back,
suggesting the sense of pride and power felt when
one could believe oneself protected by a royal birth.
But this idealized view of the South is a biased se-
lection, as much fiction as the text you are reading,
its scenes not only recalled but violated by the
asymmetry of the painted brooches.
Psychologically, feudalism is suggested by the
way the jewels eclipse the rest of the image, inspiring
a contemplation of hierarchy. The images as cover-
ings also recall secrets, what we talked about and
what we didn't, the source of life or death in the old
South. Tales of the Civil War, which led us nowhere,
become aligned by House in the drawings with a se-
ries of useless stairs. Dark unimagined slave histories
etch themselves just below our conscious minds as
we follow House's dark, almost nondescript back-
ground patterns. In this ambiguous world, ambigui-
ties themselves become suspicious. Although House
does genuinely love and respect Southern women,
was it their very tenacity, their strength, which al-
lowed them to ignore the slave economy and lent va-
lidity to the Southern illusion? And finally, the gems
didn't seem real. Perhaps what the paintings are
"about" if one might use that word is the presentation
as real of a world as false as the gems on the
brooches might be. By thrusting the gems in our face,
House dares us to examine them with a cynical eye.
Are they real? Are they false? At any rate, their daz-
zling presence masks reality the way the gentile
Southern code and the strength of the women masked

the face of slavery.

Initially I was put off by the garishly painted
gems, perhaps because their brilliant and individual-

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Huerta, Benito; Ballou, Chris & Loftus, Kelley. Art Lies, Volume 3, October-November 1994. Houston, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth228036/. Accessed July 29, 2014.