Jan. 15 2008 01:44 AM

Artists don't get any more organized than John Purlia


The swap meet is chaotic. Worn-down wares spill out of vans, tower on tabletops and lie in heaps on tattered blankets. Children are everywhere, running up and down the aisles, getting hauled around in wooden wagons, hustling merchandise. The thick smells of nag champa, funnel cake and spiced meats swirl through the air while Mariah Carey and a pan flute rendition of “Hotel California” blare from intermittently placed sets of speakers.

John Purlia ambles through this mayhem, charting a calm but deliberate course from the northwest corner of the parking lot directly past the used-good stalls that usually contain the biggest bounty. Though he stops once to run a finger over the cover of a lurid 3-D Bible and again to snap a photo of a faded sticker on the asphalt, he seems mostly immune to the distractions surrounding him.

Twenty minutes of uneventful perusal slide by before Purlia hits pay dirt. He moseys into a corner lot and momentarily stoops over someone's long-lost photo album, the contents of which are strewn all over the pavement.

“Here's wishing the best of luck to a swell girl,” he reads from the back of a yellowed senior portrait. He chuckles for a moment, but then his gaze shifts and he spies a milk crate full of used records. He loses interest in the pile of discarded memories; the sun literally breaks through the clouds just moments before Purlia finds the Christmas album. As soon as he sees it, he knows it will be perfect. He holds it up triumphantly, grinning at the score.

John Purlia is 47 years old, one of four children, the son of a pharmacist and an art teacher. His home—a modestly sized but gorgeously maintained old Spanish-style house whose previous owners include the granddaughter of Ulysses S. Grant—is nestled in a small jungle of foliage on Mount Soledad. He lives alone.

Purlia's spotless white sneakers sink into the butter-soft ivory carpet as he travels from room to room, pointing out his favorite paintings and other items of interest. The 16 years he's spent working as an engineer for Qualcomm have afforded him a comfortable lifestyle, allowing him to freely indulge his combination of boyish and elegant tastes.

In the main living room—among polished wooden floors, high-arched ceilings and ornately carved antique armoires—plastic toy robots bookend ancient volumes of The Book of Knowledge. His vast CD collection is arranged alphabetically on primary-color, dust-free shelves that span every inch of wall space in what is either a small room or an enormous walk-in closet. Vintage books purchased at Comic-Con are displayed on spotless glass shelves in a sunny, smaller sitting room; favorite titles include Eastern Shame Girl, The Cannibal Who Overate and The Key to Happiness—A Living Philosophy for Dwellers in an Atomic Age.

Original paintings by prominent contemporary artists hang in almost every room, each featuring a twisted mix of cartoonish innocence tinged with sinister sensibilities. And yet the engineer in Purlia still maintains negative space—in his house full of collectibles, there is absolutely no clutter.

Like his home, Purlia's artwork is also arranged with painstaking attention to detail. The brightly colored photographs of intricate theatrical tableaus feature characters from vintage record albums frozen in moments of personal drama. This drama is fleshed-out by surrounding Greek choruses of plastic toys and titles like “Bridget is visited by the regrets of her past while waiting for her dose of Somunsol to kick in” and “Kathy is home schooled when mother discovers questionable coursework in her book bag.” Most of the time, the drama involves a juxtaposition of innocence, temptation and judgment.

“When you look at how conservative they are,” Purlia says, referring to the hokey style on many vintage album covers, “the more I want to do something more outrageous in front of them.” This he does, albeit subtly. There are no vulgar acts performed by plastic toys; innocence is lost and judgment is passed only through the looks in the eyes and the expressions on the faces of all the characters.

In “Audrey longs for a career in front of the camera, but does not heed stern warnings from her celestial advisors,” (pictured to the right) Jesus and Mary look disapprovingly upon a cake-top bride, whose head is tilted up expectantly, past them, in the direction of a robot photographer. The topless bombshell in the background gazes steadily into Purlia's lens, a slutty harbinger of what may lie in store for Audrey. This is about as explicit as it gets—for Purlia, a little bit of innuendo goes a long way.

Because of the many combinations of elements at play in each photo, Purlia often finds himself having to explain his relationship with photo-editing software. Yes, he uses Photoshop for fixing imperfections on album covers and removing text that doesn't fit the narrative, but none of his characters are ever digitally placed into a scene. This way, one could argue, his work is essentially assemblage sculpture first and photography second.

“I do dream about these things,” Purlia says. “Not that they come to life or something, but I do dream about where they want to be.”

After four years of developing his photography, Purlia still considers himself an amateur; he's yet to invest in professional lighting, set up a proper studio or fully grasp the purpose of F-stops.

“What I wanted to do was show a friend of mine all the little toys I had in my office,” Purlia says. “So I'd put 'em up, wherever, take a photo of it, and it was boring. And then I thought, Well, I'd better add some context, so I'll put a record album behind it. And then I realized I could really do something with that.”

To begin a piece, he chooses a compelling record-album background to start with and then harvests a selection of characters from their home on a bookshelf in his guest house. The toys—cowboys and Indians, army guys, robots, farm animals and so on—are carefully categorized and stand at the ready in orchard-like rows. He plucks a handful off the shelf, carries them inside and sets up shop on a tiny craft table in an upstairs sunroom, using mostly natural light to illuminate the photographs.

His low-budget production materials notwithstanding, Purlia's goal is to make a living from his creative work someday, and his photos seem to be teetering on the brink of more widespread recognition. He's about to have a four-page spread in the February issue of the national bimonthly fine-art photography magazine Focus, a development that's caused Purlia to re-consider the impact that size has on his images. If he were to blow up his prints to cover the entire wall of a gallery, as one Focus editor suggested, he could conceivably be making a much bolder statement. The idea intrigues Purlia, but he says he still doesn't have the technical expertise to produce quality images of that size.

On the other hand, it wouldn't be very hard for him to go down a more commercial route. His humorously titled, whimsical images also seem like the perfect fodder for the greeting-card and calendar industry.
“There's a certain point at which you don't want to be oversaturated,” Purlia says, explaining his reservations. “Because there are some artists I know, that I wonder if at some point they sit back and go, ‘I'm on napkins. Now, does that distract from the artistic statement that I'm trying to make?'”    

On the web: web.mac.com/jpurlia.

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