Calarts Campus

Luciano Perna (1958–2021)

Los Angeles-based visual artist Luciano Perna (Art BFA 84, MFA 86), lauded by the Los Angeles Times for his “quirky sculptures and varied photographs [that] play with the elasticity of matter and time,” passed away on Dec. 28, 2021 in Los Angeles. He was 63.

The artist was born in 1958 in Naples, Italy, to Elena Chiesa and Berardo Perna. The latter’s amateur photography was an inspiration to a teenage Perna, who learned to develop and print photos in a homemade darkroom. Shortly after the death of his parents, he moved to Caracas, Venezuela, to live with his older half-brother, geographer and Conceptual artist Claudio Perna. During Luciano’s five years in Venezuela, Claudio introduced him to the unique creative curriculum at CalArts, where he enrolled in 1979. 

A tribute to Perna by the LA Times detailed the artist’s time at the Institute:

At CalArts Perna found a sympathetic faculty cohort, including such Conceptual art stalwarts as John Baldessari, Douglas Huebler (whose daughter he would marry) and Barbara Kruger, and photographers Judy Fiskin and Jo Ann Callis. He embraced lessons gleaned from the feminist art movement, which had carved out a central place in the school’s wide-ranging curriculum. He earned a BFA in 1984 and an MFA in 1986, both in photography.

Though Perna’s artistic practice was rooted in Conceptualism, the radical Italian Arte Povera movement of the late 1960s—in which traditional art materials were eschewed in favor of humble and mundane everyday objects—proved a major influence in his work. A 1993 Bomb magazine interview and profile noted how Perna’s work defied categorization: 

His uncategorizable art takes many forms, shifting from painting to sculpture and photography to publishing. Perna has made pictures out of coffee grounds and coins, smashed lightbulbs and sand. His sculptures, which sometimes consist of Weber grills, feathers, old motorcycles, and ping-pong balls, give funny physical form to the run-of-the-mill weirdness at the basis of everyday reality.

Perna’s first solo exhibition of photographs was presented in 1988 at Fahey Klein Gallery in Los Angeles. During his career, his works have been exhibited throughout the United States and Europe, including at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, the Laguna Art Museum, the List Visual Art Center at MIT, New York’s DIA Art Foundation, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, and the ICA in London. His work is held in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA); the Museum of Fine Arts, La Chaux-des-Fonds, Switzerland; and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Perna was among the CalArtians selected to illustrate a 2006 Centre Pompidou exhibition Los Angeles 1955-1985: Birth of an Art Capital, a survey of established and emerging LA artists. The exhibition catalog included his photograph, alongside those of late former School of Art faculty Michael Asher, former visiting faculty Jonathan Borofsky, Lari Pittman (Art BFA 74, MFA 76), Stephen Prina (Art MFA 80), and David Salle (Art BFA 73), among others.

More recently, Perna’s photographs were the subject of “Pandemic Flowers,” an essay written by Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, the Andrew W. Mellon professor of modern art at Harvard University, in the October/November 2020 issue of Artforum magazine. Perna reflected on these works in his artist’s statement:

The plants and objects that I chose to photograph for this series are objects and plants that I have had for many years. At the same time, I realize that they are familiar and common to most people’s experience of the world: flowers, clamshells, scissors, string, and so on. The photographs in some way are about the objects of the everyday with which we connect to and experience the world.

More than just making interesting photographs, I am interested in what makes and what is an interesting photograph.

A selection of his works are also currently on view in Splendid Isolation, a group show at the Municipal Museum of Contemporary Art (also known as S.M.A.K.) in Ghent, Belgium running through Sept. 18, 2022.

Perna’s art making approach is quoted on his profile with the Marian Goodman Gallery: “What I do is determined by what I believe in, and what I believe in constantly changes.” 

Perna is survived by Darcy Huebler, his wife of 35 years and associate dean of the School of Art at CalArts. 

The artist, wearing a black T-shirt and glasses, holding a Nikon camera. Behind him is a white tiled wall.
Luciano Perna self portrait | Image courtesy of Darcy Huebler