Hirsch Perlman’s wooden figures are both conceptual and accessible, but what’s most interesting is how they’ve come to exist at all.
In the late 19th century, Southern California attracted misfits, idealists, and entrepreneurs with few ties to anyone or anything. Swamis, spiritualists, and other self-proclaimed religious authorities quickly made their way out West to forge new faiths. Independent book publishers, motivational speakers, and metaphysical-minded artists and writers then became part of the Los Angeles landscape. City of the Seekers examines how the legacy of this spiritual freedom enables SoCal artists to make creative work as part of their practices.
Years ago, seemingly out of nowhere, the Chair of the Department of Art at UCLA resolved to make an articulated mechanical joint for an unknown figure using nothing except wood, down to the axles, nuts, and bolts. Hirsch Perlman had no idea why he was doing it or what it all meant, but as he continued to work on his growing army of wooden figures, lessons emerged about the decaying paradigm of the mind/body split, as well as the nature of consciousness itself.
After experimenting with different types of wood for his project, Perlman initially settled on lignum vitae due to its lubricating resin. As he points out, he wasn't the first to discover the wood's outstanding properties: some of the earliest mechanical clocks were made out of the material, as are the bearings in hydroelectric generators.
After a while, Perlman said the underlying meaning of his project slowly manifested. "The infinite adjustment of this thing was more than the lateral movement of a knee joint or even the rotator ball and socket of a shoulder or hip," he tells The Creators Project. "The joint I’d made was a trope on mental mechanisms—the flexible workings of thought, a model of mental gymnastics, the brain as an adjustable tool. These parts were a piece of 'mind,' not body. Much of the reward up to this point was in problem-solving and getting the thing to work, but the more important reward is in ending up somewhere that I couldn’t have possibly anticipated when I began."
Perlman asked himself many questions throughout the course of his ambitious undertaking. If humans are so smart, why are they so destructive? Why does consciousness give us the idea that we're somehow superior, when consciousness itself is supposedly an expression of unity? Perlman further questioned, "To the extent that we are altruistic and extend and act on our empathy, why can’t we project our empathy further into the future and take more care with each other, with the earth?"
From 12-foot-tall stick figures, Perlman carved his creations down to just "brains," while beginning to use other types of wood. Even more themes and questions emerged. The artist started to wonder whether sculpture itself was a practical way for humans to evaluate the outdated dualism between the mind and body, and whether the history of sculpture somehow reflects the evolution of consciousness, too. "So, after months of making drawings of the metaphorical obliteration of the mind/body dichotomy, I asked myself, who would take their place? What would a human model, a sculpture of embodiment, look like? All parts would have to be equal and human," Perlman explains.
So next, Perlman created block-like figures from seven smaller components, and after a few months, he began to animate them. "Nothing but turning, simple rotation, this way then that way—robotics with grinding motor voices. Now I knew seven stacked blocks could live, but they couldn’t emote,” he says. “They needed to be humanized further. If they are to be successful models of embodiment, then those seven equal blocks needed to move on any axis and be posable."
Using armature wire and occasionally hidden magnets to connect the blocks, Perlman was able to make his creations pose in a variety of ways. That only left him with more questions, though: "Now that my block people were capable of enough nuance to project a self, I wondered if I could model the lack of self?" He explored the idea of an empty cranium, and created a block around a cylinder-shaped hole. "But it is less a lobotomy than it is a cyclops with attention directed on the axis through the cylinder—a model of the vector of attention. We (humans, artists) are mechanisms for framing attention and incoming information, but we are not selves," Perlman says.
The brain and figure models Perlman is now building are both abstract and familiar, conceptual yet recognizable. They maintain the same form from all angles, and serve as reminders to stay present, even though Perlman still isn't sure where he’ll take them from here. "My work has always been about affect, the threshold of affect, the penchant to make meaning from very little or from nonsense, the threshold of how little it takes to make something animate, make something that you, as a reader, a viewer, or a citizen cannot help but project onto or anthropomorphize," Perlman explains. "Art can draw your attention to that very activity, that very human capability."
Visit Hirsch Perlman’s website here.