Artist Erik Parker In Conversation: Undertow at Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York

Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, is currently showing  Erik Parker: Undertow, an exhibition of new paintings that represent a confluence of ideas and style, explored in previous bodies of work including the Maps, Heads, Landscapes and Hydroglyphics. Parker’s iconic, highly-saturated palette and intricate compositions are amplified by collage and airbrush techniques that create a balance of density and open space. Undertow marks the artist’s third solo exhibition with the gallery and offers insight into the evolution of Parker’s work over the last two decades. Here, Parker continues to critically chart the world’s current political, social, and economic landscapes with compositions brimming with references to media, popular culture, music, and art history. Synthesising multiple elements from his myriad styles into new dynamic compositions, the artist works at breaking down the meta narratives of late modernist painting while simultaneously digesting the pictorial chatter of scrolling feeds of social media.

Kim Connerton has known Erik since they were both young artists in Brooklyn in the 1990s. Here, she discusses with Parker the shift in his newer paintings, which are represented in the Undertow exhibition.

KC: It’s really hard to make an interesting painting today. You make provocative paintings audiences want to engage with. For me the acidy, bright colors are what I respond to first. Do you use words less for any particular reason? The paintings in early 2000 used words as forming structures, the more recent portraits use less words and the recent landscapes such as My Mekong are without words.
EP: I didn’t want to get pigeon holed. I started using words to get an audience in group shows. It’s so easy if you have a room full of people and you’re doing the group show circuit, if people write stuff: we are talking late 1990s. You put a painting in and wrote Wu-Tang Clan or The 3rd Ambassador – people just gravitated to that. You didn’t mix contemporary art and The Wu-Tang Clan. Now its alright.

KC: It was radical then.
EP: It was something to get noticed for.

KC:  So that was a strategy.
EP: It was definitely a strategy. You had 10 people in a show. How do you get noticed? People loved reading the names. I didn’t realise people would sit there and read it.

KC: I know Peter Saul had a significant influence on you. Your newer landscapes series moves away from your grounding in Saul’s psychedelic and referential approach. It does bring up the question of originality. Do you think originality or authenticity are important in critiquing art?
EP: Authenticity is a long term game. You can penetrate the art market without any authenticity. But sooner or later you’re going to have to have some of it. All of this stuff doesn’t even matter until 30 years after the fact. Tom Wesselmann was completely underrated and dies underrated but truly authentic. I think it is important but I don’t judge. That’s not a criteria of art. Peter (Saul) is very authentic and Kenny Scharf. You know a Kenny when you see one. Keith Haring is authentic.

KC: What is it about their work that resonates with you?
EP:  It is their own thing! They take a little bit of this and that but they put their own spin on it. It is not an appropriation, it is a style. And it’s informed, it’s not an accident. It is about thinking about things. There is a ton of R&B singers but Marvin Gaye is really good. Why is Charlie Parker a great sax player? He bends the notes.

KC: It’s something you are or see in a certain way that is you. Otherwise, everything else is the same. What are some of the newer influences in your work?
EP: Newer things would be using an airbrush that gives it kind of a misty feel and softens things up. Before I thought they were really graphic and it gives it depth. The backgrounds and water are airbrushed. We’ve added collage.

KC: So more things are involved in constructing the paintings. Are you still looking at Henri Rousseau, Carroll Dunham, Francis Bacon and Kenny Scharf?
EP: Yes, I am still looking at all of that. I do a lot less looking. Dana (Schutz) made a great show. I don’t feel influenced by it. I feel inspired. Nothing really influences me. You get locked into your own language at a certain point. I am trying to pack as much into a painting as I can so I’ve added collage. I am trying to make loaded paintings because we live in a loaded time.  A lot of stuff that I see looks like late period Modernism.

KC: The philosopher, Elizabeth Grosz, described the environments in Frances Bacon’s paintings as magnetic, imperceptible and intergalactic. Are these qualities you wanted in the portraits that were influenced by Bacon?
EP: Intergalactic is definitely cool. Bacon’s environments are very mellow. The paintings are always set in a very simple room and the focus is on the figure. There will be lines penetrating circles. Those are graphical paintings. Intergalactic is great.

KC: You have said that your earlier work filled a gap that Google and the Internet subsequently fill today. Your lists were personal and engaged with a wider audience. People can identify with the subcultures you reference. I wondered, since your work is influenced by Psychedelic Art from the 1960s…
EP: Well, its not influenced by that stuff though!

KC: Its not?
EP: Not really. I just make shit that looks like that naturally. I’m not a big psych guy. I am from the place where the first psych band came from in Austin. Colour is just easy for me. The more of it the better. Psychedelic art is something totally different. Maybe these are psychedelic but it is not intended. Yeah they are psych. The real interest in these heads is that we are always so connected. With this (Erik points to his iPhone) we become more connected, but another kind of disconnected.

KC: It is interference.
EP: There is no attention to anything: these are all multi-tasked. I could multi-task better than ever. But by doing that I lose a certain something. I don’t even know yet. Something. The ramifications aren’t even there yet. So these are multi-task paintings with constant streams of information coming in. Different kind of narrative set ups that all build a head.

KC: That’s what I was interested in, not Psychedelic Art, but its origins and the extremes of the 1960s. There was a desire for the unheard to be heard and the marginalised to move to the center. This was the basis to look at what you are responding to now.
EP: I think you are right on the money. A lot of younger people have had everything at their finger tips. We are pulling the collage cut outs from predominately 1970s material. In analogue there is room for error and error is nice. The pop of a record or cracking sound – people pay big bucks for that now. Like Funk in the 1970s, like Funkadelic or Parliament. Those are big sounds. I’m not hung up on this stuff. It’s just a thing to make something about. I was responding to Donald Trump for one second in Frontrunner.

KC: Your paintings respond to the fact that people don’t focus. The phone beeps and you’re distracted…
EP: People would rather fucking wreck their car because of it. We are in an asymmetrical attention span right now!

KC: Recently, at The Barnes Foundation, I saw a Jean Jacques Rousseau landscape and thought, Erik Parker could brighten up this painting. In Rousseau’s book, The Social Contract, he wrote that men are born free and yet everywhere they are in chains.  Where in life do we lose freedom?
EP: As soon as you enter Kindergarten. Your first step into the institution you lose your freedom. Its not incarceration, but watch children: you see that things they liked to do, they don’t do any more, small things, but you can see the gloom of real life. You get older and you are in your 20s. You not only start losing freedom but hope (laughs). I am tremendously grateful.

KC: Is gratitude freedom?
EP: All you have to do is spend 10 minutes in someone else’s shoes. I had to learn to be grateful. A big part of me having problems with alcohol and substance abuse was having no understanding of how to express that, indulging my bullshit. I am grateful to be interviewed. That’s a fantastic thing. And to make these pictures.

Erik Parker: Undertow,  until 23 January, Paul Kasmin Gallery, 297 10th Avenue, New York, NY 10001.

Kim Connerton, PhD, is an artist, academic, and writer currently living in Philadelphia.

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1. Erik Parker, Undertow, 2015. Courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery.