Conceptual artist Luciano Perna, known for his typically absurd Arte Povera-influenced found object sculptures and his silent evocative photographs, died of a heart attack on December 28 in Los Angeles at the age of sixty-three. The news was confirmed to the Los Angeles Times by the artist’s wife, Darcy Huebler. His work in a variety of mediums including painting, photography, sculpture and installation defied every category, his body of work has been variously described as constructivist, Duchampian, futuristic and surrealist. In works ranging from a self-portrait consisting of an extreme close-up of a strand of spaghetti enlarged to reflect his own height, to ‘Paintings by the Pound’, a group of abstract paintings in which he hid small weights and charged buyers accordingly, he continually put questions the limitations surrounding art making and its reception.
Perna was born in Naples in 1958. After the death of both his parents within months of each other, he moved to Caracas, Venezuela at the age of sixteen to live with his older half-brother. There he continued the practice of photography, which he had taken over at the age of fourteen under the tutelage of his father, an amateur photographer. After brief stints as an archivist at the National Library of Venezuela and as a photographer in a commercial portrait studio, he moved to Los Angeles and enrolled at CalArts at age twenty-one. He then earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in photography there, where he studied with John Baldessari, Judy Fiskin, Barbara Kruger and Douglas Huebler (his future wife’s father).
Working with modest found objects, Perna often put together objects that were considered masculine (motorcycles, race cars) and objects that were considered feminine or domestic (pots, pans, cups, backyard barbecues). Of particular note is his 1993 Easy Rider, which replicates the iconic helicopter ridden by Peter Fonda in the titular 1969 film, with a pair of aluminum cranks forming the bike’s extended front fork. Perna had never seen the film, which came out when he was eleven and lived in Naples. “I just saw the pictures and I imagined what was in the film,” he said BombDavid Pagel’s the year he made the work.
Though he experimented with different mediums over the course of his career — “What I want to do is best tackled in that strange, non-imageable space that resists definition,” he told Pagel — photography remained a constant. During the Covid-19 lockdown, Perna began photographing plants and other objects in his home against seemingly depthless black backgrounds, the results both luminous and elegiac. He posted his efforts daily on his social media accounts, where they caught the attention of many previously unfamiliar with his work. Among them was critic Benjamin HD Buchloh, who expanded these works on the pages of art forum autumn 2020.
An artist completely unknown to me seemed to suspend his floral semaphores between terror and temptation. Alarming, as Perna’s random specimens were apparently singled out not only by a concern over the increasingly precarious ecology of plants, threatened with extinction by continually diversified political and economic practices of chemical and climatic destruction, but also by the sense of an exacerbated reality that the imagination of the dangers to life in general during the pandemic. Seduction, as these images not only mobilized the memorable transhistorical attractions of the flora, but also used the ancient meditative powers of nature morte to stop the paradoxical fallout of time under the stultifying evacuation of most structured functions of everyday life by the pandemic.
Inkjet prints of these works were exhibited at Marian Goodman Librairie in Paris in 2021. Perna has exhibited widely in galleries around the world and in museums, including the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, the Laguna Art Museum and the Santa Monica Museum of Art, all in California; the List Visual Art Center at MIT, Dia Art Foundation, New York; and the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London. His work is included in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Museum of Fine Arts, La Chaux-des-Fonds, Switzerland.