José Santiago Pérez
Born in Los Angeles, California
Resides in Chicago, Illinois
Ryan Michael Ford
Born in Waterbury, Connecticut
Resides in Boone, North Carolina
In his artist’s statement, weaver and sculptor José Santiago Pérez writes, “Baskets are our companion objects.” Gazing at his “Un/Burden (so you may reunite)” with its creamsicle orange cupping a well of bubblegum pink, I feel a sense of affection. I want to pick it up and hold it close to examine the stitching, feel the texture. Not to mention it sparkles!
An ebullient color scheme radiates throughout Pérez’s work and serves as the connecting thread in “Highlighter,” which pairs Pérez with painter Ryan Michael Ford. Many of Ford’s canvases feature delightfully adorable creatures that bleed rich ombres into shimmering backgrounds. In “chi hua hua,” a luscious tangerine bleeds into scarlet along the elongated body of a dog. The body is made of rings, reminiscent to the children’s toy Rock-a-Stack. Ford would likely welcome the comparison between his work and a toy. As he told bfp creative: “I came from a more fuzz bucket goofball corner.” And there is a goofiness to canvases like “fick dermals” in which a friendly phallic creature emerges from an interlocking series of rainbows. (Rainbows also appear in “pup vision,” ingeniously casting shadows on the wall behind the many-faced dog.) The goofiness is invigorating, reminding viewers that looking at art can be a joyful activity of reveling in beauty and opening yourself up to unexpected—and delightful—discoveries.
Ford cites the influence of the Harry who group along with Hilma af Klimt and Philip Guston. This influence shows up in the psychedelic, sci-fi colors of Ford’s canvas. Meanwhile Pérez’s color scheme can be attributed in part to his material: brightly dyed plastic. The Un/burden series sparkles because Pérez wove in strips of emergency blankets, those silver mylar sheets first invented by NASA in 1964 to insulate space equipment. Now they illustrate news reports of children sleeping on concrete floors surrounded by chain-link fences. What do we need to spill into this welcoming basket so that families can be reunited across borders, in asylum hearings, or in the bureaucratic maze erected to dissuade and discourage?
In thinking about Pérez’s medium, plastic, I wonder if the burden could be related to consumer culture’s addiction to convenience and speed. Is the burden our obscuring fantasy that allows us to buy without considering the product’s origins in migrant labor and environmental waste? This is not a burden privileged consumers carry, but one they place on others who work in factories and pick through landfills. The slash in Pérez’s title keeps the burden present; even if it can be set down, the ache still lingers in the shoulders. The trauma will remain.
“Un/Burden (so you may reunite)” isn’t asking the viewer to choose between “reading” the mylar as a shiny delight or a reminder of children, bereft of their caretakers and wrapped in foil by strangers. Instead, Pérez uses material like a language. With words, significance accretes over time as the word is used communally. As a word’s meaning morphs and shifts, its past trails behind it in its etymology, a reminder of why some words are considered crass and others respectable. Similarly, mylar and plastic as materials are now synonymous with “quick” and “disposable.” We associate plastic with balled up cellophane after lunch or toys a child will grow out of. They are quick, convenient, and cheap. Because they are infinitely moldable, plastics easily hide their past of extraction. But plastic’s etymology remains gouged in the earth’s surface and lingering in the air. We toss away in a moment something that took a millennium to make. How strange that we treat as disposable one of the most durable materials humans have invented.
Pérez takes this material that is so caught up in complex and brutal forces and treats it with tenderness. Unburdening it from its need to be efficient and useful, he weaves it into a basket that seemingly holds nothing. In the “Palacio” series, it is coiled into ropes and bent into small sinewy objects that spill bright excess like vibrant feathers. These jewel-like objects feel both contemporary in their color schemes and rooted in a long-standing craft tradition of weaving.
Ford plays with a similar temporal enfolding in paintings like “sofi on a mission to the moon.” With the little bubbles of flying saucers merrily careening off a cliff, the painting feels nostalgic for a time when people’s vision of the future involved exploration and adventure, not plastic-choked oceans and impending climate catastrophe—a time when mylar signaled the sheen of telescopes and satellites, not family separation. Ford uses scenes of nostalgia to call viewers back to a wonder-filled state often associated with childhood in which its possible to imagine new modes of relationality. Inspired in part by his own alien encounter, Ford limns moments of gentle sociality with two furry figures ecstatically sharing a bubble or a pair of creatures embracing in a dark, star-studded sky. Like Peréz playing with plastic’s many meanings, Ford’s “goofiness” doesn’t preclude deeper layers. While the title “Protect All My Dawgs” inspired me to giggle, I also couldn’t help but be drawn into a dreamy mediation on this balanced and radiating composition that captures a scene of communal care.
Both these artists urge us to reimagine our relation to each other, time, and materials. This reimagining calls to me the words of another artist, Cecelia Vicuña. She integrates weaving into her performances in reference to quipu, an ancient Andean record-keep device in which data was recorded by making knots in string. She cautions contemporary readers who long to assign one-to-one meanings to the patterns they make in thread. She writes static definition “shuts/ off/the possibility/of seeing them/as carriers/of meanings/of future potentials.” While both Peréz and Ford make direct references to the past and draw from a deep well of personal and cultural memory, they keep alive the future potentials of their materials and create spaces for new ways to be companions.
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 www.ehooverink.com.