One day I was moving paintings in the “gallery space” of my studio and I heard the words, “French Revolution”. We had just been through a long spate of Trump tantrums and I believe it was that, as much as anything, that brought the French Revolution to mind. I love French history, and while I haven’t studied the Revolution in many years, I spent the afternoon in a revery of free association. I was working on some large paintings that are mostly abstract, but with a representational association. And I was using a lot of metallic paint. I decided that I wanted to paint one of those wide, diaphanous skirts worn by Marie-Antoinette. I found such a skirt misidentified as hers on Google.
The skirt was actually the wedding dress of Hedwig Elisabeth Charlotte of Holstein Gottorp. Mari-Antoinette’s wedding dress said to be made of a cloth of silver and covered with diamonds has not survived. It had all the qualities I was looking for — diaphanous, enormous, like a curatain on a stage, with layers and layers of labor-intensive lace.
As I started to paint this I thought of the French court and how a century before the Revolution Louis XIV declared, “L’état c’est moi!”. “The State is Me!” He brought all the nobels to court, where he could keep his eye on them, and then he sent his minions to the provences where they could corral the land profits for the State. This structure was unsustainable, as more and more of the wealth was concentrated at the top. While the Queen play-acted at being a simple shepherdess at her faux farm, her people were starving. Parallels mount as you look at our current situation.
I did not so much paint this picture as I attacked it. I flung paint at it and rubbed my hands in it. In the end came a shocking moment of beauty, like. the sparkling glass of a broken vase. Should I have called the piece, “Vanitas”?
“Almond Tree – Tree in Twilight”, oil, metallic and enamel paint on canvas.
I was raised to think that art history evolved linearly – a straight line from Giotto to Pollock. I was not prepared for the halting, meandering movement of a career in art, where you race forward with one idea, retrack steps, add something new, abandon a direction and end up end up in the middle of a hi-way clover wondering which way to go. Nor was I prepared for all the things that would influence my work — art history, a random photo, a hand injury, the availability of materials. This is why I find it so unnerving to write grants — “describe your project”. My project is to get from where I am to where I am going without crashing. My destination is uncertain, the GPS is broken, I don’t have a map, but I do know that moss grows on the north side of a tree.
With my Almond Tree series, I decided to go deep. Explore the imagery every way I could, and see where that took me. The latest incarnation besides kicking the sacred cow of a Pollock drip, also involved using metallic paint. For most of my career I have used high quality artist fine oil paints, but after attending a workshop with Vincent di Siderio, where he told us that he started a painting with roofing tar and Rustoleum, I thought, why not? The importance of how paint “feels” cannot be overstated. Silver Rustoleum is a lyrical medium with a mecurial affect. With it I was able to add a layer to my Monet inspired landscape, where I was not only depicting the light, I was creating it. In these paintings the surface changes with the light. You never see the same painting. When you move, it changes. When the light changes, it changes. The surface was set in motion.
Funny thing about motion. I started taking photographs of the landscape while I was moving.
When I decided to paint the same thing, More adventures with paint suggested themselves.
“Tracings”, oil on canvas
“Drive By – Night” 68 inches x 42 inches, oil, metallic and enamel paint on canvas.
While driving around and capturing these images first as photos and then as paintings, I also observed what rain looked like as my headlights beamed off of the drops.
“Small Rain”, 40 inches x 72 inches, oil and metallic paint on canvas.
“Small Rain”, side view showing the reflective quality of the paint.
“Ebb Tide”, 70 inches x 70 inches, oil and metallic paint on canvas.
In the end the paint was able to create qualities that I observed in nature. Each effort suggested a new way of working with the paint, subjects that were at times representational and at others abstract. Trying to write about this in a grant is frustrating. All I can say is that I am skidding on black ice in a vehicle hoping not to crash.
“I never work with people who don’t work for themselves. Can’t trust them,” Cus declared. “You’re your own boss? OK, I’ll work with you.” Michael visited Cus D’Amato, the famous boxing trainer in Catskill, New York at the request of his German producer. He saw an article on Cus training some promising kids, and he wanted Michael to check it out.
With approval from both Cus and our producer in Germany, the next day I found myself in Camille Ewald’s kitchen. Camille was the wife of Cus’ now dead brother. She owned a large Victorian house on the western side of the Hudson River, where Cus lived with her and several of the professional boxers he was training.
Camille was cooking ziti and a large pot of sauce. Cus led us to the livingroom that spanned the length of the house. Two fighters sat in the darkly paneled room watching Judge Judy on the television. As soon as Cus entered the room they stood up and came over and introduced themselves to us.
I knew who Cus was, of course. I grew up watching the Gillette Friday Night Fights. Cus’ fighter Floyd Patterson was one of the first fighters I watched. I was lucky enough to start following boxing during the Golden Age. In the first fight I saw, Sonny Liston flattened his opponent. In the post-fight interview with Howard Cosell, it became evident that Sonny Liston didn’t speak English or any other language. He communicated with his fists and he did that very well. Liston, the then Cassius Clay, Patterson, Foreman, Frasier, Spinks both Michael and Leon, who wouldn’t love watching these guys? In a barely heated glassed-in porch my friend Suzie and I, with pillows on the floor, leaped around, punching the air and screaming, while we watched the fights. We wondered, too, when we would get to sit on a Gillette electric shaver and slide down a snow-covered hill. Now, twenty years later, I was in the house of Cus D’Amato, whose fighter had beaten Johan Johansson. Paterson was a quiet fighter, shy and introspective, and he was the only heavy weight that the mob didn’t own.
This was a problem. A problem for the mob, and a problem for Cus. He told us that for the entire time that Patterson fought, Cus never slept in the same room twice. If Cus was in a hotel and his room was on the third floor, he took the elevator to the seventh floor and walked down. He carried a knife with him folded into a newspaper. Even when he stayed in Europe, the mob sent prostitutes to his room followed by a photographer. If Cus were caught in flagrante he would be barred from the game. Cus trusted no one.
Promptly at four o’clock, we were called to dinner. At the table were Teddy Atlas, Kevin Rooney, Mike Tyson, Frankie from Brooklyn, two other fighters and Camille. As we sat there Camille and one of the fighters brought a large bowl of ziti, bread and salad to the table. Once everything was placed on the table everyone waited for Camille to be seated and served before they dug into the food. Their manners were impressive.
After dinner Cus heated some water and prepared instant coffee for himself and Michael and me. Later as we continued to film with him, we often showed up at the house after dinner, and this coffee ritual became a favorite for Cus and myself. Cus loved to talk, or more accurately, loved to tell stories. I was a new set of ears.
“You know what makes a great fighter?” he asked me one night. Heart, I thought, power, speed. “What makes a great fighter is desire and discipline. He can have all sorts of other qualities, strength, speed, power, talent, but without desire and discipline, he will never make it.” He let that sink in and then he said, “And do you know what the job of a fighter is? To hit, and not get hit and be entertaining. A lot of fighters don’t get that they need to be entertaining. If they aren’t, no one will watch them. “
The gym was an old municipal theater over the police station. On the stage, was the speed bag and large punching bag. The large open floor had a full- size ring and space next to it to jump rope and lift weights. Weight lifting was not emphasized, as it tended to bulk up the fighters and slow them down.
Cus trained the professionals during the day, but at night he trained the kids. As they entered they walked up to each adult in the room and introduced themselves. With Cus they stopped and waited for him to ask about how they were doing in school, did they have homework, how had they done on a test.
At the gym, the fighters all started moving at once and then they all stopped at once. I noticed that there was a light signaling the start and stop. The training was set up as a 15 round fight, three minutes on, one minute off. The timing in the ring became second nature, and over time, how they paced themselves became second nature. Teddy Atlas worked with the fighters in the ring. Before they ever threw a punch they spent months developing evasive moves. Bob and weave, bob and weave. And when they weren’t doing that they were leaping backward and turning 180 degrees in one step. Teddy swiped his arms toward their head and they had to duck or leap out of reach.
Leslie Parke, “Breath”, oil on canvas
On the stage, an old mattress was tied to a pole, with the numbers one through nine written on it and circled. A fighter pressed the button of an audio tape machine, and Cus’ voice, scratchy from over use, called out numbers, at first very slowly, 3-7-1-1-8. This continued for a three minute round. The fighter hit the circled numbers as Cus called them out. If he was able to land all of the punches in the correct order and not get confused, he moved on to a faster version.
One day a man came to the gym who said that he could make fighters punch faster. Cus had his doubts, but let the man explain. He had done this before, but the last time was with a race horse. It seems that he had made the same claim about race horses, that he could make them run faster, and someone challenged him to prove it. They gave him a horse that always ended up in the middle of the pack; he just didn’t have it in him to win. The man carefully studied the mechanics the horse’s motion – what foot needed to be where and when, to maximize its speed. Then he slowly and deliberately reproduced these movements in this horse. What he was doing was imprinting the correct movements on the horse. When the horse could execute the movements perfectly in slow motion he sped up the process ever so slightly. It made sense to Cus. What his fighters needed was the ability to land combination punches, fast. A three-punch combination is common, but if a fighter could land five and maybe even seven punches in the same amount of time, it would devastate his opponent.
They set up the mattress – 1 was a jab, 2 a body punch, 3 an upper cut and so on. Then slowly, so slowly the fighter barely had the patience for it, Cus called out the punches by calling out the numbers. The lightening speed with which Tyson could deliver a combination punch is attributable to this. Years later, when I watched Tyson fight on television; I could hear people in his corner and at times even in the audience, yell, “Give him a three!” Or sometimes I heard a stream of numbers, and as with Pavlov’s dog, it unleashed a torrent of punches. No one had ever seen five and six punch combinations delivered with such speed.
I sat next to Cus while Teddy worked with a fighter in the ring. “Look at that,” he said, “That kid is a Zen Master.” I looked at him surprised to hear Cus use the term “Zen Master.” Then he yelled, “Johnny, you are the Master.” In the ring was a skinny kid moving deftly around the ring avoiding every punch thrown at him. “He knows everything that is going on in the ring at every moment. He is never taken by surprise. If you see a punch coming, it can’t knock you out.”
Leslie Parke, “Push Off”, oil on canvas
One night at the house I found Cus reading Eugen Herrigel’s, “Zen and the Art of Archery”. “Its my favorite book. Norman Mailer gave it to me. If you are a Master of one thing, you can be a Master of anything. The qualities it takes to be a Master are the same, no matter what discipline they are applied to.”
It was at this moment that I realized that my training had begun. I was going to learn from Cus what was never available to me in school. I was with a Master and I was going to absorb everything he could teach me.
Fighting is just like painting. You face a big blank canvas and your worst enemy is not your opponent, your worst enemy is yourself. You need to put in endless hours of training, study, preparation, so that at the moment when you confront the void you can completely let go, empty your mind and merge with the void.
Michael had a Zen approach to making documentaries. He found a situation, like this one, of an old trainer working with young fighters; he immersed himself in the situation and filmed everything until the story emerged. He was devoted to letting his subjects reveal themselves without the aid of a narrator. For eighteen months we went everywhere with these fighters. Michael and I always worked as a two-person crew. It made us extremely mobile. We could arrive at a location, be out of the car and shooting in less than two minutes. Michael worked the camera and I did the sound. We shot in video and not film, so I also carried a 30-pound video recorder on my back and was connected to Michael with a cable. Michael’s viewfinder limited his vision, so I scanned the scene and made sure that Michael didn’t miss any action outside of his field of vision. With my hand gripping the back of his shirt I could indicate to him to pan one-way or the other. He trusted me and was able create long pans that contained and followed the action without interruption. He also knew that I kept him safe, so that if someone took off down the street he could run backwards in front of them while shooting because as I held of his shirt and I could warn him of curbs, steps and other obstacles. Eventually we were able to run upstairs backwards and through revolving doors shooting all the while.
“Fear is your friend. Being afraid is a sign you are going to win,” Cus repeated this daily. I had to trust that he was right. Michael and I were finally going to film the kids in a real fight at the Apollo Boxing Club in the South Bronx, run by one of Cus’ former champions, Jose Torres. The fight was a “smoker”, unsanctioned, due to the fact that there was no doctor at the fight. I drove, Michael filmed out the window as we followed Teddy, who drove the kids in a van. Teddy had a lead foot, so that even with the pedal to the floor of the Subaru, I could barely keep up. We hit the George Washington Bridge moving quickly against the rush hour traffic. Teddy remained in the fast lane going east on the bridge. Suddenly and without warning, he cut across the all three lanes and went full speed down the off ramp. I did everything I could to stay on Teddy’s bumper. After winding through the bombed out neighborhoods of the South Bronx we pulled up to a bar under the “El”. (This was the New York of John Sloan and George Bellows.) Teddy jumped out of the car and said, “Wait here”. He went into the bar and came out with someone. He pointed at us. The guy went back into the bar and Teddy came to my window. “Its OK, he’ll look after your car.”
We entered a door across the street and bound up the stairs to the Apollo Boxing Club. On the landing a couple was deep frying Empanadas and cooking chicken on a charcoal grill. The stairs were filled with smoke, but the smell was as good as any fine ethnic kitchen.
Mike Tyson came to every fight, but even at fifteen his reputation was such that no one, who didn’t have to, would fight him. You didn’t fight Tyson for practice, which was really the point of these fights; you fought him if you never wanted to fight again.
Leslie Parke, “Peek-a-boo”, oil on paper
The last fight they had at the Apollo, there was more fighting outside the ring than in it. Nothing about these fights was regulated. The audience was filled with local enthusiasts, who came, drank, cheered, and bet. One fellow had too much to drink and was not fairing well with his bets, so he started a fight in the seats. Someone knocked him out with a trophy. I was glad that Tyson would be watching the fights with us.
Teddy was able to get a fight for Frankie. As the “El” clamored by on the second story level outside the window, Frankie swooped into the middle of the ring, his arms flailing through the air. “Frankie, Frankie”, Teddy screamed, “Slow down, you’re going to knock yourself out”. In a case where the judges must have awarded points for effort, since almost no punches on either side actually landed, Frankie was awarded the fight. You would have thought he had won the Olympics, the way he strutted around the ring beating his chest.
The following week we were supposed to go to a fight in Queens. I had a horrible feeling about it; something was screaming in my head not to go. I never had such feelings before and wouldn’t dream of interfering with a shoot, but I couldn’t shake it. After much whining and pleading on my part, we didn’t go. When we returned to the gym on Monday, Teddy told us that there was a shooting at the fight. Worse than the gun-shots were the people running for the exits. Michael turned to me furious. “You made us miss that!” — Fear is your friend; fear is your best friend. –
He was right. Michael’s job is to run into the burning building, not away from it. My job is to run in with him. It was the only time I opposed his decision.
When you make a documentary, at least when you do it the way we did it, if you miss something it is gone forever. If you have a technical fuck up, the shot is lost forever. If the sound is bad, light is wrong, cable loose, you have lost it forever.
Leslie Parke, “Holding”, oil on linen
My job was to be sure that when something important happened the sound was perfect. There is no over dubbing in this sort of documentary, but people are used to perfect sound on TV and if you don’t have it, you will lose your viewers fast. When I walked into a room I surveyed it for errant sounds. If there was music, a radio, or TV playing, I turned it off. You can’t have part of a conversation with Judge Judy in the background and another part with Jeopardy – you can’t edit and have the conversation undermined by this contradictory sequencing in the background. More insidious are ambient sounds; the humming refrigerator, buzzing flourescent lights or sneakers thumping in the dryer. It was my job to go into someone’s home or a public space and as far as possible, eliminate these sounds before we started. This is where detachment or even out of body experience can help. In fact, if I could have worn a uniform that would have helped me assert my authority in these situations I would have been grateful. But knowing how bad a scene looked with lousy sound, to say nothing of Michael’s explosive temper, was enough to give me the courage I needed to invade someone’s home, unplug the refrigerator, remove light bulbs and turn the key on an idling ignition.
Leslie Parke, “On the Ropes”, oil on canvas
People asked how I could stand working with Michael. He screamed at me, kept me from going to the bathroom, or taking a break. But I learned early to listen to the content of what he was telling me, and never the tone. This was his work. This was the most important thing to him and if we missed a shot, it was gone forever. As far as it was humanly possible, it was my job to facilitate that. Some days we were in sync, moving through space together like tango dancers, whipping, turning, spinning, and never missing a thing. Other times we were more like figure skaters that had missed our jump and gone careening into the wall. I lived for the good days, where we were in the zone and we shot what we needed and it was better and more surprising than anything we could hope for.
Leslie Parke, “Knock Out”, oil on paper
I always saw this as Michael’s work. It was years before I even acknowledged to myself that I had anything to do with the production of these films. It wasn’t until I described this work to an actor friend and I told him about knowing what Michael wanted, and having an understanding of his vision, so that when I had my hand on the back of his shirt and I’d tilt it so that he would pan, my friend said to me, “You mean you were directing.” It stopped me short, and I protested and insisted that, “No, this was all Michael’s vision.” But later I thought about it and was reminded of how, when we finished shooting and Michael started editing and I returned to the studio, that he called me and asked me to lunch and as we sat in the diner he said, “And how should it start?” And as we talked through lunch I outlined the film on a napkin. Michael did all the editing, and to me, that was making the film. I always saw my role as a passive one. But perhaps it was in that passive role that I was best able to see what was there. As the sound person, no one interacted with me. I was the ultimate passive observer. In fact, I found that in this role I could see people as they were. I saw them as others saw them, and I saw them as they saw themselves, and I saw them just be in the world. And I always, always, fell in love with them, whether they were boxers or socialites, Holocaust survivors or composers, to know someone as they are, is to love them.
In 1982 I was the sound person, assistant camera for Watch Me Now, a Michael Marton documentary about young boxers at Cus d’Amato’s gym in the Catskills fighting their way to the top. One of the boxers featured is fifteen year old Mike Tyson. (PBS and SDR)
The last time I was a resident at A.I.R Vallauris in 2008, I left a box of materials. This time I decided not to take any materials with me and to just make use of what was in the box and whatever I could find in the street.
I had two notions about how I would use my time. One, I wanted to experiment, respond to the moment and not plan everything out. And two, I wanted to look at Goya’s paintings and see if there is a way I can distil their essence into something abstract. I didn’t think that I would do these two things together.
When I open the box, I have plenty of paint, some brushes, and several pieces of 300 lb Fabriano watercolor paper. But what really excites me, is the box itself. It sat in a dry shed for eight years. The cardboard is soft and no longer has much structural strength. One side is white. I tear off one of the flaps and start painting.
Goya’s Dog on Cardboard, 4 inches x 2 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016
Goya on My Mind
Since Goya was already on my mind, I start by loosely painting one of his portraits with black ink. I switch to oil paint and the soft cardboard yields under my brush. The un-even torn edges make a beautiful deckle* around the piece. When I paint Goya’s, “The Dog” I like how the creases in the cardboard interact with the image.
All the pieces are small, averaging 4 inches x 2 inches. In the end, I branch out to include the back of a tuna box and a crushed can that I found in a parking lot.
*deckle edge paper—a type of paper with rough edges
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Maja on the Can”, oil on soda can, 2.5 inches x 5 inches, 2016
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Dona Tadea Arias de Enriquez on Tuna Box”, 6 inches x 4 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: The Countess of El Carpio on Cardboard”, 4 inches x 2 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Arsensio Julia on Cardboard”, 2 inches x 2 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Goya’s Countess on Cardboard”, 3 inches x 2 inches, ink on cardboard, 2016
Leslie Parke, “Goya on Garbage: Portrait of the Countess of Chincon on Cardboard”, 3 inches x 2 inches, oil on cardboard, 2016
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.
Little do I remember of the astronomy lecture I attended twenty some years ago on a warm summer night in an observatory on what may be the last densely wooded tract of land in Cambridge. What I do remember is that the lecture put me in a kind of swoon. For the first time in my life, science and poetry became one. Somehow a talk on chaos theory and its relation to the order of the universe – randomness as the predictable and necessary precursor to design – had the heft and elegance and perspicacity of a poem you want to memorize or a painting you don’t want to leave.
Leslie Parke, “Road Work”, 56 inches x 43.5 inches, oil on canvas, 2014. Photo Credit: Jon Barber
Leslie Parke’s paintings live at the same intersection where patterns court chaos, abstraction approaches the figurative and stasis hovers on the cusp of implosion. Her paintings are charged by contradictions: impersonal grids softened by sunlight; watery washes with metallic spikes; a cathedral of squiggles above a perfectly triangular black hole; the aurora borealis in a zip lock bag.
Leslie Parke, “Silo”, 46 inches x 96 inches, oil on canvas, 2014.
But even contradictions are connected by themes, and what’s most striking across these disparate, spirited works is their relentless energy. This is a painter who thrashes in her sleep. And it is not merely high-powered kinesis that comes through so much as the integration of movement, color and form. It is no coincidence that the lines of “Silo” shift from vertical on the left half of the diptych to horizontal on the right; those same lines correspond with the play of light – muted to the left, increasingly luminous as the eye moves right. For all that it initially appears purely cerebral – the meticulous study of an industrial grid – the painting as a whole achieves the thrilling solace of a sunrise.
As with many artists at their performance peaks, Parke’s recent paintings seem deceptively effortless. They’re not. Go back to them; they have a lot to say.
Christopher Millis’ criticism has appeared extensively in such publications as Art News, Artspeak, The Black American and The Boston Phoenix as well as on National Public Radio. He is the former editor of artsMEDIA Magazine in Boston.
Christopher Millis‘s writing has been published, produced and broadcast widely in the United States and Europe for the last twenty years. He has authored three books of poetry: The Handsome Shackles (2002,) Impossible Mirrors (1994,) and The Diary of the Delphic Oracle (1991,) and his poems have been featured in numerous magazines and anthologies. In 1994, his translations of the Triestine poet Umberto Saba appeared as The Dark of the Sun (University Press of America,) and the first of his acclaimed translations of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, “Requiem for Mohammed Al-Dura,” was published in The London Review of Books in 2000. His translation of Darwish’s “I Remember al-Sayyab” appeared in 2004 in The London Review of Books, The Daily Star, and The International Herald Tribune.
In 1979, Millis was commissioned by the Theater of the Open Eye in New York to write the libretto for Jean Erdman‘s dance opera The Shining House, a collaboration with Michael Czajkowski, Paul Jenkins and Ralph Lee. The Shining House established itself as part of the repertoire of Jean Erdman and Joseph Campbell’s Theater of The Open Eye with productions until 1984. The following year, Poems for the End of the World (1985,) choreographed by June Anderson, appeared at the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio. Millis collaborated with Anderson and David Leisner on The Magnetic Properties of Moonlight at New York ‘s Dance Theater Workshop in 1986.