‘Seeing Like an Artist’ takes Readers on an art tour, complete with droll commentary

Lincoln Perry is a figurative painter and makes no bones about it. He also has a keen sense of humor. In a sequence of four terracotta tiles (he also sculpts), the progress of an Eternal Triangle (an artist, her model and her husband) is accentuated by an artistic slide from naturalism to deconstruction. He calls it “Sum of Destructions,” and it’s a witty gem that’s among the works explored in “Seeing Like an Artist.”

The book by Perry, who divides his time between Maine, Virginia and Florida, delivers a dazzling tour of some major and not-so-well-known artworks and places, describing how and what he sees in – and loves about – them. As a muralist himself, he is particularly drawn to frescoes. He is unapologetic about his focus on Western art. He doesn’t mean to be exclusive; it’s just that he loves European artists, particularly the Italians, so much, he hasn’t yet had time to go further.

“My Eurocentric Adventures have only scratched the surface of in situ world art: In Italy alone, there are more murals and sculptures than I can hope to visit in my lifetime.” Nevertheless, when he passes an African sculpture of a mother and child in a Canadian Museum, he stops and marvels. The longer we spend in her presence, he advises, “the more she gets under our skin.”

To the famous artists who have decried the need to explain paintings in words, Perry responds with dignified humility. “As smart and funny as all these quips are, I can’t help but disagree.” His first example more than validates his position. Giovanni Bellini’s “St. Francis in the Desert,” in New York’s Frick Museum, requires no introduction. When I was a child, we lived on the same street, and it was a regular Sunday afternoon destination for my parents. I have stood, mesmerized, before that painting many times, enjoying the donkey and the rabbit et cetera Hidden in plain sight. Perry observes them as well in terms of the play of colors, planes and repeated shapes – “Look, trapezoids galore!” they exclaim. Having seen it through Perry’s eyes, I will appreciate that Masterpiece even more the next time I go to the Frick.

In the first couple of chapters, Perry’s artistic subjects combine with Memories of his early life, and they are both touching and amusing. On his first grand tour of Europe, he lived for a while in a Volkswagen minivan parked in the lot of the Louvre, then unobstructed by the IM Pei Pyramid. With this for his home base, he could give himself up to the museum’s entire collection at his leisure. Those were the days, before vast queues, timed entries and Spirit Airlines-type scrums in front of the Mona Lisa.

In easy-going language, Perry discusses just about every consideration that goes into completing a work of art. In this, he coaches the Reader with the help of his own sketches, made during his Encounters with the works in question. Even so, one is bound to hanker after having the original to look at, but color reproductions would have turned an instructive Handbook into one fit for the coffee table. Perry and Godine employ a thoroughly modern solution. All the pictures under discussion can be found on the author’s website.

Perry has a few axes to grind. Regarding the “unbridgeable gap” between abstract and figurative art: putting paint on Canvas – the “color shapes” that are formed – “inherently involves a level of abstract thought.” Sometimes, I have to wonder if his axes aren’t really straw men, as in: “The idea that the Old Masters are dark and brown and that it took the Impressionists to invent rich color, is Frankly and provably, rubbish.” Would anyone who has admired the Venetian painters (like Bellini), just as one example, disagree?

Still, I enjoyed the total Elan of the following challenge: “Some seem to think we could have spared ourselves the entire Western tradition of painting if Leonardo had just invented the Nikon.” Perry has a deft way of making his point in counterintuitive ways. Caravaggio’s Narcissus bursting against the picture frame demonstrates “the Fiat approach to organizing pictorial space.” A 600-old fresco is “supremely loony.”

On the other hand, some of his asides are too glib, even fatuous. Craning the neck to follow a fresco into the ceiling, “but one must suffer for art, right?” Or seeing writhing bodies out of tree roots, “especially after a few margaritas.” Nor did I find his dialogues with his own artist friends or References to his long-suffering wife’s (the novelist Ann Beattie) jetlag useful or endearing.

But then one comes across this beautifully simple plea: “Find the tactile in the act of seeing and be touched, as I am, by wonder.” It could be the epigram for the whole book. Read it before your next visit to a museum.

Thomas Urquhart is the author of “Up for Grabs! Timber Pirates, Lumber Barons and the Battles Over Maine’s Public Lands.”

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