Just inside the front door of Bunny Pearlman’s Provincetown apartment are stacks of small square fresco panels that she has been assembling in preparation for “The Last Leopard — Avoiding Extinction,” the retrospective of her work opening on Friday, May 7 at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.
Her paintings are uniquely “Bunny,” with a kind of outside-the-box magic. Their gessoed and frescoed surfaces are steeped with a watery infusion of color and form. They’re quietly disarming — not declarative or overwhelming. You feel as if you’re being let in on a bit of secret but you’re not quite sure what it is. At the same time, the paintings don’t feel finite — they’re open and expansive, illuminating mysteries where words fall short.
Pearlman likes to work in series, each new painting building on the preceding one, like chapters in a book. Her series A Time for Counting is one of her best: split-screen compositions where the upper half depicts an image related to her travels, while the lower half depicts fragments from the natural world, with a written notation at the top as if these were pages from a botanist’s journal. They’re like annotations of a fleeting thought — a shard of memory recorded for posterity.
Curated with acuity by artist Bert Yarborough — no easy task, considering the span and scope of Pearlman’s artistic career — the small works invite intimate engagement. “For over 60 years, through a myriad of artistic practices, research, travels, triumphs, and tragedies, she has maintained what for me and many others can only be defined as an inspiring spirit,” writes Yarborough in the exhibition catalogue.
Her life story, she says, “is all true. Not capital T, but you know?” Her younger self was colorful and restless. She had multiple artistic iterations: modern dancer, writer, teacher, poet, painter. She comes from a family of what she calls “Jewish gypsies” — outliers and outsiders who “didn’t mix well.” That may partially explain her unique vision: primed from the beginning not just to roam, but to roam as an artist.
Pearlman grew up in Queens, N.Y. and had her first exhibition at the Jewish Museum when she was 10 years old. She studied art and religion at a local yeshiva before attending Queens College for a year. She then traveled to Israel for another year of work and study. When her family moved to Florida, she enrolled at the University of Florida, taking classes in photography, painting, and printmaking. She taught art for several years while raising a family of her own, in Florida and California.
She first came to Provincetown in 1976. She directed the famed East End Gallery for 17 seasons before it closed in 2004. Back then, winters were for travel — Boston, New York, Colorado, South Dakota, Israel, Mexico, and Italy. But not anymore: “I finally needed to settle down,” she says, citing her age and health concerns. She’s been a full-time resident of Provincetown since 2016.
Her gallery years were the happiest and most successful of her career. “People would come in and buy things!” she recalls with mock surprise. “I was a little bit notorious then. A Provincetown celebrity!” It didn’t hurt that she had a good eye and represented such a strong group of artists: Yarborough, Arthur Cohen, Kahn and Selesnick, and Tabitha Vevers. “Most of the people I showed had that sense of combining the real with the dream,” she says.
As the weather warms, the easel that currently occupies Pearlman’s front room will make its way to the small back yard, where she’s starting a spring garden. She tries to paint every day and is constantly writing.
“I do have a book of poetry that I’m going to try and publish,” she says. “I write a lot of stuff … stories and memoir.” The paintings, however, are the main branch in the tree of her creative life — visual manifestations of Pearlman’s unique humor and inquiring mind. Like her, they’re one of kind.
Bunny and the Leopard
The event: “The Last Leopard — Avoiding Extinction,” a retrospective of works by Bunny Pearlman
The time: Friday, May 7 through June 27; Thursday through Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; reservations at paam.org
The place: Provincetown Art Association and Museum, 460 Commercial St.
The cost: $12.50; members free