Interview: Artist James Perkins Discusses His Sculpture "One Percent," Featuring A Mix Of Counterfeit And Authentic Iconic Watches

Artist James Perkins uses counterfeit watches to explore the dynamics of class in modern society.

The interplay between art and watches is a topic that is still relevant today, especially considering the growth of the re-sale market for both commodities. While particular models embody an artistic concept in form and function (like Greubel Forsey's Art Piece 1 and Anita Porchet's custom dials for Laurent Ferrier), an artist named James Perkins approaches the concept in a more literal fashion. For a recent exhibition at Ace Gallery, Perkins created a thought-provoking sculpture inspired by one of the most iconic watches in existence. The piece consists of 100 watches, but there is a caveat: 99 are fake and only one is the real deal.

To better understand the methodology behind this work, we present an interview with the artist, conducted by curator Dexter Wimberly.

Dexter Wimberly on James Perkins:

In his recent solo exhibition with famed Ace Gallery, artist James Perkins eloquently confronted money and its societal impact as an universal and unifying human experience of perception.

Using materials from his time spent on Wall Street, many of the artworks are facially accessible to viewers; however, this is devised to draw the viewer into a more intimate exchange that challenges their own value judgments as the artist was forced to do in the making of the works. This is perhaps most exemplified in “One Percent”, an artwork comprised of 99 counterfeit watches, and one genuine Rolex Submariner anonymously interspersed within the milieu.

Dexter Wimberly: Watches hold a special place in my heart because I mark certain milestones in my life by the watch I was wearing, or searching for at the time. How did you arrive at using watches as one of the mediums in your artwork?

James Perkins: With the watch sculptures in this latest body of work, “Speculation”, I wanted to explore the idea of markets and money and how the objects that surround them can make us feel.

Everyday here in New York, I walk past Canal St. to get to my studio, and every single day I am inundated with these objects of desire on the underground market – “We got Rolex, Louis Vuitton, Gucci!! You want?”

Some days I wondered, "Do I look like I need a boost of self-confidence? And how is it that certain objects can affect us this much?" I wanted to capture that experience, not only in concept but also literally in the heritage of how New York artists before me who took things from the streets of SoHo into their studio practice (like Richard Serra’s piles of rubber, Jeff Koons’ tchotchkies, or Jean Michel-Basquiat’s window paintings.)

I also contemplated something that I heard Richard Serra say last year during a lecture here in New York which is, “an artist’s mandate is to invent”. I wanted to invent a new medium, a new way of seeing and perceiving, and a new way to tell a narrative. Used in an artistic context, watches are one of those rare objects that can embody so much of what’s happening in society ... almost like Warhol’s soup can, certain objects transcend their initial intention and become part of a larger discussion.

Dexter Wimberly (l.) in conversation with James Perkins (r.). Photo credit: Herman Jean-Noel.

DW: Some of my friends have strong opinions about certain watch brands/models and what they say about the wearer. How did you decide on the type of watch to use in your work?

JP: Once, I had this very intimidating interview for a trading desk position at a large investment bank and the guys were coming in the conference room left and right, asking me to do math problems on the back of my resume and just generally messing with me. It was fine, but the only way I could keep track of the names and personalities was by writing what type of watch they wore on the back of their business cards.

The first moment of inspiration for me always begins with a very personal experience, like my best friend trying to find a specific Rolex Daytona, or the idea of the starter watch bought with one’s first bonus money. 

Among the 100 watches within this installation, only one is authentic.

Other works by Perkins comment on cultural 

norms within the finance industry.

DW: What concepts inform the composition?

JP: I will throw out the first two ideas on the principle that the work should abstract itself and I will began to have thoughts about the canon of art history – is the work making a contribution to how we as artists work? And is the work making a contribution to the way we as humans perceive?

Aesthetic decisions come into play obviously. As I brought things in from the street, I wanted them to have a clean and tidy presentation. I think the clean and tidy appearance of my work comes from the perfectionism that comes to be expected when you are training as an analyst at an investment bank or hedge fund. The polished finish and minimalism in the work seems to camouflage the origin of the watches (which were sourced from a street vendor and carried in a black plastic deli bag while ducking from the cops) in the same way the counterfeit watches don’t want to reflect their origin.


DW: How does this work – excuse the pun – reflect the times we are in?

JP: As the name, “One Percent” suggests, Zuccotti Park, and the Occupy Wall Street movement happened not too far from Canal St., and despite the class warfare the "99%" protested, they still, paradoxically, support this underground market of fake watches driven by their desire to look like the "1%" or to have the perception of wealth – maybe even self-worth in some cases. 

But that’s not where it ends – the pressures of perception reach as far as celebrity culture as well. There is an Instagram account (called FakeWatchBustathat featured my work and calls out celebrities wearing fake watches. Yikes!

This suggests that the poor and the wealthy feel the pressure of this perception all the same.

DW: The last time we met we were talking about not just the art of watch making, but also the art of watches. As a curator I often find myself engrossed in design and the visual impact of objects. I feel that my watch (a Rolex GMT ref. 116718), though manufactured, is a work of art.

Perkins (sans-Datejust) outside the Ace Gallery in Los Angeles.

JP: Yes! Mechanical watches are beginning to approach the requirements of a work of art. We don’t need them to tell time anymore, but there is still this unexplainable emotional relationship we as watch lovers have with these objects. I think they are charged with so much human love and attention that it is hard not to feel something.

When I first started working on the sculptures, I stopped wearing my 1961 Rolex Datejust. I just felt funny about wearing it, I didn’t know what to think – I knew I was on to something profound to the human experience but I didn’t know how to resolve it or if it even needed to be resolved. 

During the exhibition in Los Angeles, I noticed some viewers covering their own Submariners with their sleeves. The works are not about judgment in any way but about temporalization, an exploration of perception in our times. It can be really unnerving to our value base when one can’t find and perceive the real Rolex.

To learn more about James Perkin's work, visit his website here.