Rae Perlin: Whatever I Wanted Was Out There, In The World Somewhere, an exhibition of sketchbooks, small works, ephemera, and associated artifacts that puts the artist’s work and life in the context of Newfoundland and Labrador’s art historical progression, is now showing at The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery in St. John’s until April 2 2021, and represents the first major survey of Perlin’s work since 1998.
An early practitioner of Abstraction in St. John’s at a time when the tradition was met with incredulity and consternation, at least locally, Perlin left home to study art and work as an evening-shift nurse in New York City at the age of 21. In pursuit of intellectual and financial independence, and to look for, if not find, the “whatever… was out there” of the show’s title—a quote from Perlin during a Memorial University interview in 1985—Perlin studied under American painters Samuel Brecher and Hans Hoffman in New York, as well at L’Académie Grande Chaumière and Académie Ranson in Paris, and the Polytechnic of Central London, once she’d moved to Europe at age 40.

The daughter of a well-to-do merchant family, Perlin’s work foregrounds process over finished product, and given the era in which she worked, not to mention her particular socio-economic background, her practice, once she returned to St. John’s to care for her ailing mother in 1959, can be seen as a critical response to the bourgeois definition and cultivation of artists as a professionalized and specialized class—cultural gatekeepers of the status quo. The works presented here consist primarily of small, elegant, yet seemingly slapdash drawings of the mundane—suggesting Perlin’s all-consuming drive to explore simply for exploration’s sake itself. Here we see, not what may be considered a finished work or even body of work—a monumentalized and mythologized triumph of artistic ego—but the daily, incremental examination and consideration of that which seems, amongst certain schools of artistic inquiry, beneath consideration. As Perlin’s first serious art teacher, Samuel Brecher, told her: ‘It is the spirit of the thing that matters.’
For Perlin, what seems to lay at the heart of her work is not the pursuit of “success” or much of anything having to do necessarily with professional recognition, but more so the intrinsic worth that comes from a life lived with curiosity and an awareness of the divinity (if I may use that term) in the everyday. Perlin was an inspiration to Mary Pratt, who discovered her work at 19, and it’s in the former’s quiet renderings that the latter’s emergence can be seen.

Installation view of Rae Perlin exhibition at The Rooms (2020), Image courtesy of The Rooms
Installation view of Rae Perlin exhibition at The Rooms (2020), Image courtesy of The Rooms

Incidentally, at the time of her return to Newfoundland and Labrador, Perlin continued to work as a nurse at the St. John’s General Hospital, evidently still not a fan of the job, yet, as gallerist and St. John’s visual art stalwart Christina Parker puts it on a piece of wall text included in the exhibition, she remained “…bohemian before anybody knew what the word meant.”

For many artists born in Newfoundland and Labrador, this notion of leaving home to pursue their calling in the arts, only to return—either willingly or otherwise—at some later date, will hold particular resonance. “I was not interested in the social atmosphere, as such,” Perlin says of her early adulthood in St. John’s, which, even today, remains somewhat limited in what it can offer artists of any age, but certainly the young. Perlin’s battered suitcase circa 1949, its lid closed, ensconced in glass upon a plinth beside a display of the artist’s array of sketchbooks and drawings on scraps of paper, sits in the center of the gallery. It presents the viewer with the physical manifestation of what Perlin’s life and work already suggests: that the mundane (in this case, the suitcase itself) holds within a secret only gleaned for the curious and the brave—specifically, and literally, in this case (pardon the pun), for the use of school-children in The Rooms’ Open Minds arts education program where students are invited to examine the drawings and sketchbooks contained therein.

A visual art writer and community advocate, Perlin published reviews in two local newspapers, The Daily News and The Evening Telegram, as well as the holy bible of Newfoundland and Labrador culture, The Newfoundland Herald. Perlin played a crucial part in the province’s artistic development over the years, and set the stage for generations of Newfoundland and Labrador artists. Her influence is still being felt. Rae Perlin: Whatever I Wanted Was Out There, In The World Somewhere is not to be missed.