Julian Perry – Olympic Sheds

September 1, 2007

Blueprint magazine

Greenhouse Shed, 2007

It is summer in the London borough of Hackney and the recent heavy rain has made the Manor Garden allotments more fecund than usual. Poppies run riot, jasmine scents the air and fig trees are budding with fruit. Sheds flake, rust and crumble. The make-shift constructions are painter Julian Perry’s subject and obsession.

‘Perry has a feel for inbetween zones, for places were boundaries waver and enclaves are created,’ wrote the critic William Feaver. For the past two years he has driven up through the surrounding no-man’s- land of Balaaj Spare Autos, Club Desire and a bus depot, to enter the enchanted land across the River Lee to paint potting sheds. By the time you read this, however, an Olympic ring will have sealed the area and bulldozers moved in to flatten the sheds. The allotment holders’ resistance has proved futile. Perry is ambivalent. Despite using them as his subject, he says, ‘I find the whole English obsession with sheds faintly annoying’.

Such duality lies at the heart of Perry’s work. Born on the flood plains of Worcestershire, he has lived and worked in the east of London for the last 23 years. Continuously drawn to landscapes that bear marks of human activity, Perry celebrates mankind’s subtle interventions from owl boxes to hubcaps. ‘I would have difficulty going out into the countryside to paint, I think I’d get bored,’ he says. ‘I like beautiful images, but they have to be images with a story to them.’ Wooden walkways or discarded mechanical detritus in the Lee Valley provide such narratives; the contemporary bucolic with a thorn in its side. When it was announced that London had won the Olympic bid, Perry and his cohorts in Leyton did not have time to even register the news. ‘When we heard that “it will be London” it was extraordinary. Within minutes the Red Arrows flew overhead and we knew that in that moment the area had changed forever.’

He says he knew that he had to paint the allotments. The urge was to both document the site, but also to continue a project that had previously taken in a bomb crater pond in Epping Forest. In a series of paintings from 2004 Perry depicted a pond formed when a V-2 rocket landed among the trees in 1945. It is one small mark from history which nature has reclaimed, but parallels with humanity’s latest assault on the fabric of east London can be drawn. Indeed it is Perry’s view that the Olympics will alter the landscape of London more significantly and sweepingly than both the Blitz and the Great Fire of London. ‘It is a bit like being run over and winning the lottery on the same day,’ he says. ‘It is exciting, but comes at a high price for a lot of people.’

After spending time among the plots of Manor Gardens, it was the sheds that had him hooked. Their structures captured his imagination, and he says that in addition to what they represent, he is ‘interested in them as sculptures’. To home in on this architectural element within the landscape is a departure for Perry. The sheds are abstracted from their environment and painted in meticulous detail, paying homage to their textures and construction. ‘By editing,’ Perry says, ‘I can distil what they are, which is the opposite of what’s coming. They’re about individuals, often made on a tight budget as opposed to the international money and glamour of the games.’ However Perry simultaneously resists sentimentality. Removing them from the landscape which is inescapably idyllic, and letting them stand free-form on often dark canvasses, imbues the images with a certain coldness. ‘The sensibility is not about the picturesque, it’s about this phenomenon – looking for emblematic and significant images,’ he says.

The Greenhouse Shed for instance, comprises turquoise painted corrugated iron, a mottled glass door and elegant Art Deco-style window frames, which lets the light flood straight in. ‘It’s a complicated amalgam of recycled materials and patterns, and it’s rather precarious,’ Perry says. ‘I like the colour and the glass – most of the sheds are opaque, but this one has the sun shining through.’ On a technical level the range of surfaces appeals to Perry. ‘I enjoy the contrast of elements that stretch me as a painter – asphalt, rotting wood and plastic. There’s also a pleasure of recognition for the viewer. If something has evidence of time, it enables you to travel back too.’ The tangibility of paint prompts the viewer to look at an image afresh. It invokes an awareness of materials that is experienced most intensely and directly in childhood. Indeed Perry refers to the Ladybird book series as something he admires for illustrating the everyday.

There is, however, great sophistication behind the apparently simple image. Perry’s own paintings build layer upon layer of thin oil paint to create the structure of, say, a green Anderson shelter, relocated to Manor Gardens. On another, he has worked out the shingle technique and woven that onto board with fidelity, stripping away the creeping ivy, and getting to the essence of the shed’s wooden structure. Ironically, however, Perry’s abstraction of the sheds makes them anything but everyday. ‘By fanatical description it becomes weirder,’ he says, and refers to the style of the inter-war movement – New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), pioneered by Otto Dix as a reaction against expressionism. Their passionate realism led to oddness in the finest hand. Perry’s removal of context lends the sheds a ‘strange geometry, floating in their own void.’

His influences are consciously diverse. ‘I was looking for subjects that have resonance beyond a specific location, beyond E10. In order to find that resonance I needed to reference the history of art,’ he says. He looked to the tradition of painting hovels by artists such as the 16th century Dutch artist, Jan Bruegel, who painted them as ‘the ultimate in escapism’, and was one of the first artists to paint scenes of ordinary life and people. Perry also took Albrecht Dürer’s lessons of direct and minute observations of the natural world to the studio, where one of his studies is propped up. ‘It is a landscape that is also a still life. Dürer cut up a piece of turf and took it to the studio and painted it against a neutral background. He’s taken a sod of turf and turned it into its own world as opposed to a detail from the world.’

What Perry has done is take elements of Manor Gardens’ world – the sheds and the veg, and turned them into their own worlds. He has painted not only the decaying buildings, but also the flourishing fruits of each allotment-holders’ labour. The painter John Craxton has highlighted this quality in Perry’s work before. ‘ When he stumbles on a collision between industry and Arcadia…he gives [it] an uncontrived enigma,’ he wrote. Giant rhubarbs as seen from a snail’s perspective sprawl towards the viewer; reality is magnified to the point of surrealism.

The contrast between that which is thriving and crumbling is stark. It is brought head-to-head through the paintings’ semi-religious diptych arrangement, where sheds and plants pair up. Monster rhubarb is to be bolted onto Shed 54, a compact cuboid shape that looks sturdy and self-contained, despite being patched together with corrugated plastic and asphalt. The abstraction of both from their environments belie the political context in which the nurtured structures and plots are subjects of forcible eviction. A transformation has occurred. The improvised structures of the sheds, in a mish-mash of materials, so rooted in their environments, are depersonalised.

To create a new life and form for a subject is the artist’s prerogative, and where Julian Perry and the allotment owners find common ground. For making one’s own world, in which the microcosm is more real than the wider world, is what allotments and sheds represent too. The Olympics stands for extreme realities and ideals – the quickest, the strongest, the fastest. But as representations of textures, fertility, growth, personal idylls and peace, Perry’s sheds will be aliens from the past, drifting in their own private, painted space.

Julian Perry: A Common Treasury, 17 Oct – 16 Nov, Austin Desmond Fine Art, London

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