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Visual Arts > Visual Arts

Have we already arrived at ecstasy?

The risks and promises of an autodidact

Steven Gilmore
Courtesy Photo
“I’m going through a period where I don’t know what objects mean to me,” says Perez. “And that’s a big deal, because I’m an object whore.” Above: “The Way I See It,” currently traveling in the Tehran Biennial until 2010.


This is the title of Kristy Perez’s one-woman Contemporary Art Month show at Sala Diaz. The phrase is at once forbidding and entreating; the “all” that divides us could contain a list of obstacles, or the unnamed thing between you and I could be a triviality (what, is that all?) I walked up to Sala Diaz last Thursday evening to get a look the installation’s progress, and found Perez and a posse of characters on the ramshackle gallery’s front porch. It seems that Peter Zubiate — artist, Perez’s friend, and the hired installer of her show — has required payment in the form of a bottle of good whiskey. This he doles out generously, to Hills Snyder, Sala Diaz’s managing man and the curator of this show (along with Blue Star’s Lonely Are the Brave; see the Current’s CAM coverage, July 1-7), artist Jesse Amado, neighbor and actor Dylan Collins, and Kristy’s partner of 10 years, Amy, who alone in the group wears lipstick and killer-fashionable pumps.

The conversation is amiable and verges on the silly. We talk about the heat, how our grandmas describe furniture, the colloquial term for pubic hair in Lubbock and, inevitably, the death of Michael Jackson. It’s hot as hell outside, of course, and Peter’s been working his butt off. Kristy Perez allows that it’s hard to watch somebody else do her installation.

“I stand around going, ‘damn, Peter … you want some water?’” Perez says. “And I try not to distract him.”

Perez has been preparing for this show for months, and, indeed, I’ve gone to see her paintings and sculptures in her studio in past weeks, seen pink and gold canvases adorned with DIY block text that address desire and gender and the cult of the beautiful object in a way that reflects Perez’s connections to queer fabness, to graffiti-art vernacular, and to a tremendously rigorous approach to form (not surprising, given that Perez works as an conservator for Anne Zanikos Art Conservation).

But none of those thoughtful, hand-worked, painterly gestures are in Sala Diaz this Thursday night.

These are words which, by the time you read this, will be inset into the wooden floor of Sala Diaz. Brass letters are still in the process of being painstakingly placed as I look at it, the letter “holes” already chiseled into the beam. The letters feel like a historical marker, or a tombstone, in their simplicity. Small piles of wood shavings sit to the phrase’s side. Nothing , as of yet, is mounted on the walls. The focus of this exhibition is this sole phrase in brass on the old floor, spelling it out: enigmatically monumental.

“I don’t know what the hell’s gonna happen after this show,” Perez muses. “I’d be happy if someone wanted to pry this floorboard up, but we’ll see.”

Perez doesn’t have the artspeak bulwark provided by the standard MFA training, though she came through the storied (and proven) art department of San Antonio College. She sweated under Mark Pritchett, painted with Ed Rodriguez, and drew with Susan Witta-Kemp (“She really, really opened up things for me,” Perez says), but Perez remains proudly autodidactic.

“I don’t really put myself into any category, or lump myself in with any group of artists. There’s a lot of tradition to what I do, but I don’t try to fit into the art-historical side of it,” Perez says. She acknowledges some San Antonio forebears, crediting Alejandro Diaz, who founded Sala Diaz, and Franco Mondini-Ruiz with “showing me how to hustle — and that’s not a bad thing.”

More important, she says, is her relationship with Amy, who is “the reason that this all came together. When I finally got these brass letters in, and I opened up the box and saw them in that plastic bag, I cried. I said to her, ‘You made this possible.’”

Change is hard, and impulses towards change are hard to deal with. Art, like most arenas of human endeavor, rewards patience, sustained effort, and minimizing risk. In de-emphasizing her previous body of work, which includes lusciously gold-plated dog bones and Luminaria’s sly joke on all of Western art history — her gift-boxed “Venus” installation in the old Joske’s windows — Perez wonders aloud what she’s given up.

“I’ve been questioning everything — everything. What it means to be a lesbian, of color, what is the nature of the self … of selfishness! I’m going through a period where I don’t know what objects mean to me — and that’s a big deal, because I’m an object whore, I love beautiful things. I’m questioning domesticity, too; you can put that down,” Perez says, wryly. “I want this piece to make people question the limits. Listen, I’ve always said, it’s OK if I piss people off. I want to make people mad, I want to make them laugh, I want to make them think, I want to make them cum. I can only do that by challenging myself, and I know, I’m passionate, I’m impulsive as hell, I’m instinctual, and,” she laughs, “I’m selfish. OK, I’m selfish. I want whoever is looking at this to deal with everything I’m thinking. What’s in the way of that? Can art do that, break down the barriers between me and other people? Can language do that? Well, I don’t fucking know, but I’ve got it down to this … ” She gestures towards the floor.

Kristy Perez’s dad is a professional guitarist, who was himself preoccupied with his artistic output and found conventional family life constricting. Her parents split up, and her stepdad “saw me takin’ a swing at a pińata with a broomstick and said, ‘She’s got something!’ so he got me into golf.” Perez proved a talented golfer (“Dinah Shore, baby”), and played competitively while attending Gonzales High School.

Athletic accomplishment is often factored into the artmaking process for male artists; witness David Foster Wallace’s tennis preoccupation, or the basketball-and-art essay “The Heresy of the Zone Defense” by art critic Dave Hickey. But it’s not a Venn diagram taken on by a lot of female artists.

“I think it was the structure, of [golf], honing all your skills into this structure, that was really beautiful,” Perez muses. “When I talk about it … it’s part of what I do now, for sure. It’s that moment when you know you’ve got it.”

So does she feel “that moment” now?

“I don’t know,” Perez admits. “I know I don’t wanna create some bullshit party atmosphere. I know that I want the text to create a private moment with every person who looks at it. I want them to take the time and think.”

When I ask Perez about her take on other text-based female artists (Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger), she says, “I get what they do, but I see this work as different. I’m still so much about materials in real life … this piece can’t just be photographed, it’s not made to be reproduced. There’s the obvious [influence] of Alejandro Diaz, you know with the text, that’s probably as important as any other, but really, I’m just me.”

The artist statement included in the email press release is full-on Kristy, too, and belies both her restless intelligence and her separation from the academic wing of contemporary arts. If most artists statements are wonky head-of-the-class material, Kristy’s is smoking in the boys’ room. Absent are obfuscating artspeak and modish ruminations about dialoguing, discourse, juxtaposition, duality, and “isms.” Instead, she asks, “Where does beauty lie in relation to volatility? Who are we? what do we value? (true love or stuff ?) Have we already arrived at ecstasy?”

Can these questions find an answer in the brass letters on the floor at Sala Diaz — or, more rightly, will they be investigated (for lack of a finer word) in a quiet, reading moment by the viewer, thereby traversing what Dave Eggers would call “the collapsible space between us?”

I look down:


And ask her.

“It’s a formal element, set into the floor,” Kristy laughs, “ … but I also read Octavio Paz, you know? I see it not as slogans or as a take on advertising, but as poetry. Here you stand, on this floor at Sala Diaz. Hills [Snyder] gave me the opportunity to take a chance, and this is what I’m saying, to myself, and to you.”

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