Artist collaboratives can be a tricky business, but try doing it with neither the internet or even a computer. Years ago I collaborated with the brilliant, contemporary composer Henry Brant on a piece called “Inside Track“, which was played at the Holland Festival. My part in it was that I made slides of dozens of paintings on paper that were displayed on four projectors, which were “played” by two percussionists. Since the piece was performed in Holland, I never got to see it.
Let’s break down that last sentence. “I made dozens of slides.” We are talking about real slides, physical slides; slides that take a week to process in a film lab; slides made out of film and cardboard, that can’t be cropped, but rather have to be taped with physical tape to block out anything you don’t want the viewer to see. “The slides were ‘played’ on four projectors”; yes, these were slide projectors, all mechanical, nothing electronic about them. They were noisy, had different lenses, could overheat and burn the slide. Or if you used the projection long enough, the slide just faded or turned brown. The button to forward the slides was not always reliable, nor was it easy to control the speed of the advancement. The percussionists must have been very talented.
The New Artist Collaboration with Composer Thomas Oboe Lee
Recently the Boston composer Thomas Oboe Lee asked me to collaborate with him. He made two music videos using my paintings. In this case, I uploaded the images to dropbox, he downloaded them to his computer and edited them to his music. By that night I received the video in an email and we both posted it to “the world” on Youtube and Facebook.
Last night I dreamed that I was attacked by bats. Of course it made me think of this etching by Goya.
I looked up its meaning in Wikipedia:
The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (Spanish: El sueño de la razón produce monstruos) is an etching by the Spanish painter and printmaker Francisco Goya. Created between 1797 and 1799, it is the 43rd of 80 etchings making up the suite of satires Los Caprichos. Goya imagines himself asleep amidst his drawing tools, his reason dulled by slumber and bedeviled by creatures that prowl in the dark. The work includes owls that may be symbols of folly and bats symbolizing ignorance.
The full epigraph for capricho No. 43 reads; “Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”
A couple of weeks ago I dreamed that I had sex with Frank Stella under a boardwalk on Fire Island. We were both young. When I was the age I was in the dream I did this painting — clearly the “love” child of our astral meeting:
Leslie Parke, “Primary One”, oil on canvas, 1979.
Last night I dreamed that Anish Kapoor was courting me. It was all quite elaborate. I can’t wait to see how this will show up in my work. Harold Bloom would call this the “anxiety of influence”, I call it “having sex with artists.”
Leslie Parke, “Wrapped Blue”, 40 inches x 72 inches, oil on canvas, 2014. Photo credit: Jon Barber
EVERYTHING IS REAL is a group of paintings that are both abstract and representational. Each image in the series exists in the real world – an old board of insulation, an industrial garage door, a silo and corncrib, a track in the mud and wrapped cargo on pallets. At the same time, each has been composed to accentuate the inherently abstract qualities of the reflective surfaces and their interplay with light.
Leslie Parke, “Silo”, 46 inches x 96 inches, oil on canvas, 2014. Photo credit: Jon Barber
I started my career as an abstract painter, sometimes making non-objective images and at others deconstructing the work of earlier masters, such as Ingres, Matisse and Giotto. Then in the 1990s I received a grant to spend half a year at the Claude Monet Foundation in Giverny, where I had a studio and 24 hour access to the Monet’s garden. At first, I looked for anything abstract; the structure, the color — but in the end, I was seduced by the light. Since that time, I have been in search of the subject matter that would resonate best with this full range of interests. I have painted many things from nature in the past, and even some traditional still lifes, but I’ve never completely related to those traditional genres. It wasn’t until I stumbled onto a waterfront dock piled high with pallets of cargo wrapped in plastic that I felt I’d finally found my subject. This shiny, transparent, and translucent stuff, which reflected light and held water bubbles from the rain, had all the qualities I was searching for. The subject is completely abstract, and yet has a surface as complex and difficult to paint as one of Ingres’ satin dresses.
Leslie Parke. “Leaning Insulation”, 60 inches x 40 inches, oil on canvas, 2014. Photo Credit: Jon Barber
At last, all the elements I’ve worked on separately over the years have come together in these new paintings and I can see a way forward. Everything is real; every crease exists in the object, every reflection.
Travel is an important part of my painting life, but not always in the ways expected. What connects meeting Robert Smithson in New Mexico two weeks before he died, Tony Caro in his London studio and Henry Moore at Perry Green, or having keys to Monet’s gardens, or painting on an archipelago in Sweden? For me, it is meeting artists in the environment in which they work, getting a sense of their connection to the place, its history, the other artists who surround them, and connecting all that to who I am as an artist, both in the moment and as these experiences work on me over time.
My Path to Monet and Giverny
There were ten years between when I picked up a book of black and white photos of Monet’s gardens in a bookstore in London and when I spent five months as an artist in residence at his gardens in Giverny. When I found the book, the gardens hadn’t even been restored yet, nor were they open to the public. But that book drove me to see Monet’s Waterlilies at the L’Orangerie in Paris, where they are mounted on curved walls in two oval galleries.
It is hard to imagine now, but until the 1970s the late work of Monet, which consisted almost entirely of the waterlilies, were not generally appreciated. It wasn’t until a bright light was shown on the work of the Abstract Expressionists: Pollock, deKooning, Kline and Rothko, that these paintings by Monet gained new significance. Monet’s broad and expressive brush-work, which seemed to carry more feeling than content, was seen as prescient of the work of the Abstract Expressionists. It was suddenly relevant again.
Experiencing Monet’s gardens as he had.
Spending five months with unfettered access to his gardens and surroundings allowed me to see for myself what, exactly, Monet was extracting from his gardens and what he was making up. As it turns out, he was making up precious little. To experience the garden in real time, made it possible for me to see what he was up against — what the weather conditions were; how the light changed day to day and hour to hour. It was a great privilege to have this time to understand more intimately what he painted and the challenges he faced. What surprised me, is how precise the information is in his paintings, even with the ones most loosely painted.
Being in Giverny completely changed my own work.
Before Giverny, I was making paintings based on images from Giotto,Ingres and Matisse. After Giverny, I started to paint representationally and, not surprisingly, I searched for ways to imbue my work with light. What may be less obvious about the effects of that experience on me, is that it took me more than ten years to reconcile my abstract/conceptual longings with painting representationally.
Leslie Parke, “October Light”, oil on canvas.
My point is that through sharing Monet’s space over a long period of time, I not only gained insight into Monet, but I was moved and influenced in ways I never anticipated.
While in Paris, Dégas’ close friend Giovanni Boldini painted a still life on a canvas that measured 47 1/4 inches high by 15 1/4 inches wide. This narrow canvas that stretches to nearly four feet in height was probably meant to evoke a Japanese screen or scroll. In it he painted a glass of red wine just emptied, the residue barely visible at the bottom of the glass and a stack of Old Paris plates, white porcelain with gold trim that casts a celadon shadow. On one of the plates, there is a silver bowl lined with glowing gold. Another plate is strewn with apricots and figs, their skin is the same shade of green as the plate’s shadow, only darker; the inside is the shape of an almond, only white. Faintly in the shadow falling diagonally across this unusual expanse of canvas — so tall and narrow, — one can see an embroidered “D” on the tablecloth, perhaps for Dégas.
As soon as I saw this painting in a coffee table book of still lifes, I knew that this was what I wanted to paint. I wanted to paint that painting, or rather a painting of that size, that composition, that beauty. So, I plunked down the $125. and hefted the book into my arms and carried it home to my small apartment.
In my career as an artist, the muses often contacted me in this manner — leaping from a page in a book — or jumping off the wall. Once, while removing notes, postcards, and photographs from the wall of my studio, I found that the backs of several postcards that I had dropped on my work table framed a perfectly cropped, eloquent painting-to-be of the back of a woman. Without disturbing a thing I carefully taped each of the obliging scraps of paper to the found image, thus making a makeshift frame around it. This way I would know exactly what this painting required, what part of the image should be included and what needed to be cropped out. Careful to maintain the precise proportions I stretched and primed a small linen canvas. The painting effortlessly appeared under the caressing strokes of my brush. I merely revealed through the gentle dusting of my brush an image that was already there; midwife to this painting, I was neither the creator nor owner of what came forth.
Leslie Parke, “The Back”, 13 inches x 10 inches, oil on linen.
The Boldini was different. I knew I wanted my painting to have the same feel: the transplanted Orientalism of the elongated format with the objects casually, yet perfectly distributed on the surface with the shaft of light that divides and illuminates the space, bringing focus to one object and leaving another in the quiet eddies of darkness.
As a dealer once said to me, “I can find plenty of artists who paint well, but they don’t know what to paint.” Not so for Boldini, whose painting is emblematic of his life; a café life, a casual meeting with friends just over, their conversation reverberating in his ear as the muse pulls him aside and says, “Paint this.”
In my apartment, I drag a table in front of my west facing windows. In the late afternoon, the sun pours into the room like rain lighting each bit of dust. But no one has been to my apartment in weeks — no meal just eaten, nothing has been left casually on the table. So I pull objects off my shelves and line them up first by color — the blue vase, the blue cobalt and white Spode china, the gold and blue Lenox teapot. Then I arrange the objects like soldiers in a row. I move everything to the center, then everything to the edge. I try for a Zen-like casualness that fails utterly, as my anti-muse takes over and enters a regularity into my placement that is dull and even.
As I struggle with my artificial arrangements, other artists’ still lifes come to me: Eric Fiscl’s kitchen counter top under florescent light, so modern, real and evocative; and the master of still life painting, Janet Fish’s all over compositions that show formal sophistication, and yet at the same time are so full of her life, friends and everyday objects — a football game on a portable TV surrounded by bags of Cheetos and chips, with a dog asleep under the table and the convenience store across the street visible out the window. Her world is complete, inside and out and it is peopled by friends, family and animals.
I continue to move my objects around — old things like my Grandfather’s Lalique vase, and new things, like my cell phone. With each arrangement, another artist’s work seems to appear: Wayne Thibaud, Morandi, Matisse. I feel like a writer who cannot construct a sentence without recognizing which Hemmingway story it is stolen from.
My own objects are not enough. My friends lend me theirs: 19th Century English Mulberry Brushstroke china, a Belgian crystal ball, and an open-cut lace tablecloth. With each arrangement, I photograph the still life to paint from later. At first I take dozens of photos. then hundreds. Some things remain, the tablecloth, the Lalique, the old China. Others are eliminated, the cell phone. I compose like a veteran editor at the New Yorker. Taking the great raw material of superior artists, I cut and paste until I am left with either the echoes or the essence of the originals. Some of my borrowings are obvious — Vermeer makes an unabashed appearance in the form of a reproduction in a book.
Leslie Parke, “The Weight of Pearls”. oil on canvas, 35 inches x 70 inches
Boldini left me with some evidence of his life. What evidence am I offering? I suppress the query and move on. Two themes emerge, despite me. The tablecloth, which seems never to be eliminated from the still lifes, is taking on a personality of its own. Its arabesques of open-cut lace move across the surface of my paintings like a well-charted landscape. As the light changes from bold to muted and passes through the increasing quantities of translucent objects, it is as though weather is passing over the lace landscape. A cool winter glaze covers the surface when it is coupled with a shimmering crystal sugar bowl in the blue light of the early morning.
Leslie Parke, “Sugar Bowl”, oil on linen
“Still Life with Onions”
My birthday comes and with it a bit of colored translucent wrapping paper that shifts appearance like a chameleon when you crinkle it and let light pass through it. I can’t even remember what came in this magical paper, the wrapping itself seemed such a gift. I put the paper around bouquets and water-filled vases. As the light splinters over the surface, the solid objects in its grasp dissolve, melted in its refracted light. Here is the final theme; The light, the transparence and the disappearance. It is here that I emerge, a thing that is no thing, a reflection, a transparency, an object that light passes through.