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  • 01 "Punk Girl No. 3." 1991, Colored Pencil on Paper.  "People of New York" runs at Underground SoHo Gallery, 83 Mercer Street, Manhattan.
  • "Punk Girl No. 3." 1991, Colored Pencil on Paper.  "People of New York" runs at Underground SoHo Gallery, 83 Mercer Street, Manhattan.
  • 03 "Waiting for the Bus." 1990, Colored Pencil on Paper.
  • 04 "Downtown Girls." 1990, Colored Pencil on Paper.
  • 05 "Two Polish Workers." 1991, Colored Pencil on Paper. "They were the construction men that worked and repaired my apartment. There were a lot of Polish construction workers back then."
  • 06 "Deee-lite’s Miss Lady Keir." 1991, Colored Pencil on Paper. "I met her on the street in SoHo."
  • 07 "Bokov." 1991, Colored Pencil on Paper. "He was an artist that walked around SoHo and he drew on his clothes and objects. His bag was also painted with graffiti. He went to all the openings and tried to sell his art. He himself was a walking painting."
  • 08 "Red Ed." 1991, Colored Pencil on Paper. "He was a regular in the SoHo art scene and everyone knew him. He was a photographer and videographer. He went to the first show in 1991 and filmed a half-hour TV special. He was also the kind of character that walked around the art scene back then."
  • 09 Michal S. Perry standing by one of her portraits in Tel Aviv.

07/01/14 Michal Perry’s “People of New York” c. 1991

The streets of New York have always been conveyor belts of evocative humanity. Given the city’s reputation in testing mettle, its pedestrians are survivors with the stories and strong sense of identity to back it up. Ever resonant, those stories are why “Humans of New York,” the series of anecdote-captioned portraits that’s become millennials’ Chicken Soup for the Soul, has become so popular.

None better a time for revival, then, is Michal S. Perry’s “People of New York,” life-size pencil portraits of people the Tel Aviv-based artist encountered when she moved to the city in 1990. First exhibited in 1991, the illustrations document lives at a time when mobile devices didn’t run them. Through the directness in expression Perry chose to capture, often laying emphasis on eyes, a viewer becomes privy to a subject’s undiluted individualism. Therein is a mindfulness in the moment that’s largely absent today.

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24 years later, the high waists and resolute stances of Perry’s subjects resurface in an apt exhibition to launch Underground SoHo, her daughter Hila’s fine arts gallery. While working on new oil paintings in Tel Aviv, Perry chats with NOUS about the more palpable humanity of New Yorkers back then and a few backstories behind some memorable subjects.

Hi Michal. Where are you right now and what have you been working on lately?

Right now I am in my studio in Tel Aviv. I am working on large-scale oil paintings of an outdoor landscape. It’s of a forest I was very much impressed with while I was on a trip to India. The paintings concentrate on the aspect of light. I have also spent the last few years renovating an old 1920s Tel Aviv house, one of the first to be built there. The original wall paintings from the time are still intact. It’s been very rewarding.

How did the revival of your “People of New York” exhibition come about? Why did you feel it was a good time to show these works again?

My daughter Hila just graduated from NYU and she wanted to open a gallery in our old space in SoHo. The Underground SoHo Gallery was her expression of connecting the past with the present. It was, in her mind, the most appropriate way to launch the gallery. And I’m glad she did. It was so incredible to see the show up again. Of course we didn’t have all the work as some were sold in 1991, but it was still very fun to see the response after 24 years.

How did the idea for “People of New York” arise anyhow?

The idea started back in 1990 when I first arrived in the city from Israel.  Back in Israel, I was working on life-size pencil drawings featuring simple people I found interesting in Israel. And then when I arrived in the city, it was the people of New York that attracted me the most.

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For these drawings, you chose subjects that wore “their feelings more on the surface.” Which types of “feelings” were you immediately drawn to?

Each subject spoke to me for different reasons, I was drawn to them instinctively and spent a lot of time with them while putting them on paper. I can’t say exactly why each of them stood out, but it was pretty much the landscape of the city. It’s hard to describe their “feelings on the surface” because they were just there, and the connection was what brought me to them.

You shifted your art’s focus to abstract paintings after your “People of New York” series. Perhaps you were tired of the separateness and wanted to delve more deeply in your own unmediated thought? Or would you say there was still that “affirmation of self” present in the your realist drawings?

I had a four-year “in-between” period between the pencil drawings of  “People of New York” and the abstract paintings. When I started to paint with oil color, I did large-scale realistic oil paintings of interiors, rooms, and portraits. Through the process of painting with oils, I started loosen up and my paintings became more and more an expression of movement and color field. After a while, it felt that there was no need to put an object in—and that is when I started to paint abstract.

What goes through your head when you revisit these “People of New York”? Maybe nostalgia or curiosity about your subjects?

There was a lot of nostalgia. I looked back and remembered the hours I spent with these people, with their pictures, or with them personally. I also think about how different New York was back then, and SoHo, as well. No one in the portraits was holding a cellphone or had a computer. These are things that are very interesting to me.

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Would you be able to do the same series with today’s New Yorkers or do you feel maybe it’d be different, accustomed as they are to being photographed for blogs and amid the pervasion of reality TV.  

I would definitely be able to do the same today—the human aspect is always exciting and appealing to me. Even under the surface of media conditioning, there’s a deeper connection. I think I would be drawn to those people, and could capture something about them in that time and place.

Two Polish Workers

Lady Keir

Bokov

Red Ed

Michal