Artist, art historian and curator Stephen Perkins visited the Lawrence campus on Tuesday, Feb. 11, to talk about his career throughout the years and give a glimpse of his current art practice in Madison, Wisconsin. Perkins has lived in many places doing many different things. Friend and Associate Professor of Art at Lawrence, John Shimon, said that his favorite part about Perkins career was how he seamlessly floated between “trouble maker” to institutional worker and back again. With ties close to Lawrence, Perkins was hired in 2000 as the curator of the Lawton Gallery at the University of Green Bay where he worked for more than a decade.
Born in England, Perkins started his art journey when he enrolled at an art school in London. Quite early on, he discovered his draw to the unconventional. One of his first works while he was studying was a drawing entitled, “This Ain’t My Scene,” depicting his exit from the customary art that his professors taught. There was one point in which he believed himself to be a painter, but when he presented his take on a still-life, his teacher hated it. It was around then when he began to make his shift into more experimental works and art forms. After being rejected by painting, he turned to photography and eventually spread into many different mediums. His final exhibition before he graduated included zen poetry, jewelry, silk screens and an entire photo show.
Around the time he graduated, Perkins gained his affinity for language in art. At this point, he began using his artistic skills in an art therapy practice. He wanted to have art be a tool he could help others with on a social level. His new purpose was to connect with people in terms of art. This is what he did for a number of years until there was an opportunity to move to the United States. He had grown restless in art therapy and was looking for something else to devote his energies to. When he arrived, he was accepted into San Francisco State University where he began his degree in the history of photography. While studying, he came across John Collier Jr., the man who developed photography as a form of visual anthropology. Perkins then became fascinated with photos used in this form, begging the question of why people took photos in the first place and what purpose they served.
While at school in San Francisco, Perkins started his curatorial career. He and his curatorial team worked on several different ground-breaking exhibitions, constantly pushing the boundaries of the gallery space. His curating soon shot into working with small assembly magazines, most notably Box of Water #1-4 and Schism, which addressed political events and issues. At the same time, he formed the performance art band, Vivisection, produced street art and practiced his photography at political demonstrations all over the city. This was all put to a stop, though, with the Art Strike movement in the early ‘90s, in which he gave up art until the early 2000s.
Currently, he is working on several art projects and multiple curatorial plans. He photographs the planes going through the Madison airport in his neighborhood and prints political activism cards that he leaves in public and hands out. He has also begun to curate galleries in his own home — “Subspace” as he calls it — using the art he has collected over his life. To extend the life of these exhibitions, he frames all of the pieces as they would be on his wall, turning them into one large artwork. Although he loses his own pieces, he is happy that they are going back into the world. Most recently, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art displayed his work, “Latin American Art and the Decolonial Turn (1963-2018): ‘Memories of Underdevelopment,’” this past fall. His new interest has been in artist periodicals he collects. As a way to provide the artists with exposure, he holds pop-up shows where friends and colleagues can come and view the work.