Curious Pedestrian

Jess Perlitz

Born in Toronto, Canada

Resides in Portland, Oregon

Dominic Quintana

Born in Westminster, Colorado

Resides in Astoria, New York

In thinking about how to write about the work of Dominic Quintana and Jess Perlitz, I kept coming back to the title curator Daniel A Bruce chose for their show: “Curious Pedestrian.” Both artists integrate and even interrogate the activity of the pedestrian, be it responding to the abandoned spaces scattered throughout New York City or traversing Portland encased in a rock suit. But I kept retuning to the word “curious,” marveling at how it means in two directions: Curiosity on the part of the viewer who encounters a humanoid rock dragging another rock by a leash through the streets, and curiosity on the part of the artists as their work arises from a searching alertness to surrounding landscape.

Curiosity is apparent on the face of the figure in Quintana’s drawing “Astronomer Boy in a Dashiki” (2013). The child’s moon face tilts upwards. The only features are eyes that seek out the night sky. Or is he looking at his own drawing of stars? Quintana renders stars in thick crayon and with one continuous line, like you are taught in grade school. Indeed, many of Quintana’s works recall children’s drawings with their flat images, bright colors, basic shapes, and thick outlines. “Foreclosed Home” (2016) is a recognizable form: square with a triangle on top, two squares on either side of a rectangle. He has drawn the common symbol for home, or to use his word a “template” of home, repeatable, recognizable, and devoid of individual characteristics. These templates of home create a monolithic image of what family and safety is, one that is incessantly unattainable.

While a template may be flat, it conjures a richly dimensional affective space, one of family, connection, comfort, and safety. The aesthetic elements that Quintana uses to refer to children’s drawings create a particular ache when thinking of a child yearning to enter such a space, a possibility that is forever foreclosed both by the nature of a two-dimensional image and by the economic realities that keep housing out of reach for so many.

While the idea of home lures the viewer into the painting, the flat façade and featureless windows offer no glimpse of what’s inside. I see a similar push-pull in Jess Perlitz’s performance work in which her body, and often her face, is covered in thick materials. In an interview with Laurel McLaughlin in Title Magazine, Perlitz repeated the phrase “desperate for connection” in relation to her performances. At first it seemed counter-intuitive to me that someone desperate for connection would cover their head with 100 pounds of clay. However a connection is created in “Mud Breathes Better” (2017) as an expressive face is repeatedly almost formed. Similar to Quintana’s template of a home, the face that Perlitz carves into the clay while lying on her back will prompt recognition, while also a sense of discomfort at the sheer effort of mounding that much clay on her face and the possibility that she could suffocate herself.

In “Rock Moving Rocks” (2015), Perlitz left only her face exposed as she walked through Portland encased in a cumbersome rock suit while pulling a smaller boulder by a leash. In one image of the performance, she stands in a museum, gazing at an idealized landscape of a sublime mountain bathed in pink light. The contrast between the rough surface of her exoskeleton and the smooth mountain creates humorous tension between the ideal and the actual stuff of the world.

Seeing Perlitz walking as her “embodied sculpture” definitely made some pedestrians curious, in the contemporary sense of the word, but it also connects with the historical meaning, which is rooted in care. “Curious” comes from the Latin word meaning “full of care or pains, careful, assiduous, inquisitive.” I love that etymology connects care and inquisitiveness. It suggests that the questions a curious pedestrian asks of the landscape are rooted in tenderness toward the space and a recognition that the space is communal and worthy of stewarding. In a land of foreclosed homes and increasing privatization of urban space, that stewardship seems to have fallen to artists. 

Elizabeth Hoover is a poet and essayist based in Milwaukee. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Epoch, and The Crab Orchard Review and her art writing and cultural criticism has appeared in Paper, the Washington Post, and the Boston Review. You can see more of her work at