Grace Rosario Perkins Lights Up Cushion Works with the Paintings of ‘Hermit’s Lamp’

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Three large colorful abstract paintings on two white walls
Installation view of Grace Rosario Perkins' 'Hermit's Lamp' at Cushion Works. (Courtesy of Cushion Works; photo by Chris Grunder)

In tarot, the hermit card represents contemplation and self-discovery; his lamp symbolizes the inner wisdom needed to forge one’s own path. It’s fitting, then, that this form of illumination is the guiding metaphor for Grace Rosario Perkins’ exhibition at San Francisco’s Cushion Works: a new and original body of work made in solitary, independent progress.

Perkins has successfully pursued her own path as a self-taught artist with a punk aesthetic, creating paintings that reference aspects of her personal life, including her queer and Indigenous identity. Over the past year, she says she has felt a bit like a hermit, isolated from the rest of the world in Albuquerque—where she moved from the Bay Area to be closer to family—and cloistered in her studio, furiously working away on 16 paintings (all created in 2022) for exhibitions at Cushion Works and the Museum of Contemporary Art Tucson.

Vertically oriented abstract painting with blues and greens
Grace Rosario Perkins, 'Forgiveness,' 2022; acrylic, spray paint, bingo cards, ink, and bumper sticker. (Chris Grunder)

Judging by the self-assuredness and power of the seven large paintings on view at Cushion Works, she has benefited from this period of focus. All of the pieces in Hermit’s Lamp are visceral and dynamic, made up of rough, expressive marks applied intuitively and rapidly with acrylic and spray paint. Ablaze with color, they brim with an eclectic mix of drawing, writing and collage.

Phrases appear in many of the paintings: “All is well,” “Up yours,” and “Yes!” Collage elements include pieces of old paintings, family photographs, bingo cards, and a humorous bumper sticker that reads “Honk if you are on drugs.” Several of the paintings feature sketches influenced by book illustrations. Perkins’ recent inspirations include the bad graffiti and old signs she sees around Albuquerque.

Perkins has created a unique visual vocabulary. The paintings are busy and complex, but each has its own sense of unity. As gallerist Jordan Stein observes, it’s impressive that Perkins is able to make such a loaded combination of elements “work.”

Two images, at left full abstract painting with blues and pinks, at right close-up of handwritten page
Grace Rosario Perkins, 'A Paradigm of Jealousy,' 2022; acrylic, spray paint, and paper. (Chris Grunder)

Paintings like A Paradigm of Jealousy reflect this riotous synthesis. Made up of saccharine pinks and cobalt blue, muddy greens and pure black, the canvas includes a large, crudely drawn snake at the center, the words “feel the heat” and “trust” scrawled into the paint, and a piece of loose-leaf paper fixed to the surface.


The viewer must lean in close to read the tiny cursive on the page: lyrics from a punk band the artist belonged to in her 20s that sarcastically read, “It will be so nice when I have a personality.” One blue splotch of spray paint helps merge the crumpled page with the surrounding painting.

Perkins does not intend a singular, linear reading of any of her paintings, although she does see each as having an overall emotional theme, such as jealousy, forgiveness or protection, often encapsulated by the titles. She invites intimacy with bits of ephemera from her personal life, while her use of abstraction and layering creates a distance that complicates the work, multiplying potential readings.

Two images, at left full colorful abstract painting, at right photo of group of children embracing, smiling
Grace Rosario Perkins, 'Cheii Knew We Were in The White World,' 2022; acrylic, spray paint, photograph, and necklace. (Chris Grunder)

The largest painting in the exhibition, Cheii Knew We Were in The White World, is its most intimate and poignant. Buried within this roughly 6.5-by-7.5-foot abstract painting are two small personal details. The first is a childhood photograph of Perkins and several of her cousins in Fort Defiance, a town within the Navajo Nation (the artist is on the far right). The title refers to the varying ways the cousins have become distanced from traditional Indigenous life, raised by parents who were educated at boarding schools and living off the reservation. The large pink circle is like a boundary of protection buffering them from “the white world,” cast by their grandfather, who was a medicine man (“cheii” is a Diné word for grandfather). The area inside the circle is teeming with life: blossoming flowers, blue sky and energetic colors, shapes and lines.

Another very personal detail, practically hidden, is a necklace pinned to the painting’s surface that reads “girls,” a reference to both the girls in the photograph and the artist’s queer identity. The enclosure may signify her grandfather’s protection, but Perkins has also cast her own spell in this painting, a reflection of her own agency.

Perkins notes that as she gets older, she feels able to illuminate her experiences in a new way. She’s more comfortable letting the work develop according to its own timeline and needs. This confidence and perspective is especially encapsulated by a work titled I See Myself (And It’s Stepping Into A New Self). A singular image of an intricate web evokes fate, interconnection and being at the center of one’s own journey, which is exactly where Perkins, with the help of her hermit’s lamp, seems to be.

‘Hermit’s Lamp’ is on view at Cushion Works (3320 18th Street, San Francisco) through October 29. Details here.