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Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum's exhibition of the work of Erik Parker focuses on his lyrical maps
Preoccupied, 2012. Courtesy of the artist, Honor Fraser Gallery, Los Angeles, and Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York.

By: Mónica Ramírez-Montagut

RIDGEFIELD, CONN.- Erik Parker bluntly sums up his choices: “It was either art or a life of vandalism…” Born in 1968 in Stuttgart, Germany, Parker grew up in Texas and speaks not a word of German, but plenty of Spanish. His father, a member of the US military, had been temporarily stationed in Stuttgart when Parker was born, and transferred to San Antonio in 1971. A pilot in the Vietnam War with the mission of picking up the wounded from the battlefields, his father had problems adjusting to family life when he returned from the war and left the service almost immediately. His mother then had problems adapting to this turn of events, which resulted in a divorce.

Parker’s restless character and unruly demeanor made it impossible for him to comply with strict school regulations as a teenager. Instead of attending classes, he dedicated his time to skateboarding, going to live music events and visiting the area’s sole record store, where he became acquainted with legendary underground punk rock groups such as the Ramones and Sex Pistols.

Parker’s passion for alternative music continues to this day. The particular visceral approach of these musicians, their expressive reactions against the mainstream, commentary on social and political issues, and “do-it-yourself” ethos resonate with the artist to this day. The aggressively youthful and rebellious music has much in common with Parker’s fast-paced mark-making, the intensity of his busy compositions, the shouting colors, and his anti-institutional and anti-authoritarian approach to established ideologies.

Skeptical of American policies that keep the country constantly at war, and disenchanted in general with the status quo, Parker searches for a place of his own, finding refuge in art. There he expresses himself. His artwork becomes the means for complaint and resistance; a space to reveal hidden struggles that he and others like him had, or have, to endure; it is there he spells those struggles out.

Through frenzied writing and word clusters, surrounded by cartoony shapes, Parker presents a particular and specific take on unique moments. His United States maps, such as the ones in this exhibition, bring attention to underground subcultures, marginalized communities (gangs, skinheads, and drug addicts), and conspiracy theories. For Parker, this “mapping” is an exercise in locating within the American territory a series of obscure and generally hopeless issues, with the objective of transforming the US into a place of inclusion for those generally excluded.

In addition to the US territory-shaped maps, others, such as Texecuted (2001), present hard core politics à la Parker. Here he lists the names of some 152 prisoners executed during the five years G. W. Bush served as governor of Texas (some of whom, over time, have been found innocent). In the artist’s mind, these works are an attempt to provide an overall take on the most pressing issues of the day.

When prepping his idea for a specific subject, Parker sits in front of the TV, picking up words from newscasts with a sketch book in hand. The words become the source material for the painting and prompt a starting point for the whole composition. This exercise is as if Parker is keeping a diary of the world; or perhaps it’s akin to a holistic investigation, one that predates the Google search.

However, Parker won’t deny that the mappings are ultimately fictions:

“These maps are not that rigid, it is not about just overlaying labels to regions. They are altered. There are some things that are real, like the fact that the Nation of Islam initiated in Detroit, Michigan, for example. But the maps are also about mark-making, and the idea of someone making a fictitious history based on those loose facts.”

Thus Parker’s mappings function in a similar way to literary critical fictions, where imagination and carving out a space of one’s own are crucial to survival: “... individuals in repressive, dehumanizing situations use imagination to sustain life and maintain critical awareness,” explains writer Bell Hooks. A critical fiction creates a space from which the artist can demand to be heard and dynamically seeks to deconstruct conventional ways of knowing. It challenges beliefs and disrupts the commonplace. Critical fictions “provide cultural locations for the construction of alternative readings of history told from the standpoint of the oppressed.” Also of relevance is the fact that, for some, this activity is an imperative and not optional; in fact, for some it is a livelihood. The creation of such fictions aids in exercising an identity; it is a way for their authors to place themselves in the world: “I write fiction critically and not just for myself, it is also critical for me—whoever I am,” says author Lynne Tillman.

Through his own critical fictions, Parker presents a take on social, political, economic, and cultural situations as perceived specifically by him, and they represent an agent of liberation that is personal: his own method of claiming space in a society. This explanation by Tillman could be Parker’s own: “I want to be direct. I want to say why I write and what I write for, and out of, in as clear a way as possible—to cut to the chase or to the quick, to get to the heart of it.” Parker likes to get to the heart of conflict through his “bathroom writing”:

“Packing the painting with these words is more like compiling and it also refers to a vandalistic approach to the white canvas. More than a style, it is kind of like writing on a bathroom wall, so I call it bathroom writing.”

Parker’s mappings are a colorful outburst and they are loud: they demand to be seen and heard, they are not shy. They challenge our way of looking at painting since, for example, they require us to take an unconventional look at the ubiquitous and almost sacred US map outline. Showcasing the under-represented and banished ones within this territory challenges mainstream representation, and the outrageous claims Parker makes on some regions certainly disrupt the commonplace. We now have an alternative perspective of the US. We now see the power dynamics of oil and art speculation. We now see our own positioning in these dynamics and are more aware of those who lack representation. Parker, like the other producers of critical fictions, effectively intervenes and challenges the dominant reading practices.

Keen on showing us what we sometimes do not want to see, the artist presents us with visually engaging and striking works that are incredibly effective at catching our attention and holding onto our gaze. We follow the transformation of undefined shapes with excitement, just as we follow the distortion of a rock guitar solo. His effervescent forms morph into spills, spits, fingers, sperm, vaginas, or penises in an attempt to attract and yet repel; they are “calculated to disturb.” The confrontation is frank, yet it is not without humor and a charismatic, wise-ass attitude, something he shares with Peter Saul, his art teacher at the University of Texas at Austin.

A turning point in Parker’s life and career came when he met this kindred spirit, who remains a close friend to this day. From Saul and his renowned “sensationally interesting” paintings that “ridicule people . . . make fun of everything and are unfriendly,” Parker learned the craft of attraction and repulsion, framed with humor and a cartoony style. The point of Saul’s maliciousness is to distance the work from cryptic and hermetic modern art (be it Minimalism or Abstract Expressionism) and to continue the tradition of cartoony Pop art by being accessible to an audience other than the art experts. With similar objectives, both artists are interested in making honest contact with a broad audience of ordinary people. Pursuing the idea of avoiding interpreters and thinkers, art historians, and museum people, Saul insists on the clarity of the meaning of his work:

“I am trying to work towards a situation where the person stands in front of my pictures and receives the meaning of the work without the participation or benefit of exotic educational or social background.”

Saul describes his approach as a type of storytelling that he is getting better at, a strategy similar to a critical fiction and one that “sticks with the idea of being interesting no matter what.”

Under Saul’s mentorship, Parker felt at home pursuing work that insisted on social meaning by uncompromisingly condemning existing conditions; work that also engaged hopelessness and gloom and explored a youthful approach to reality; work that is direct and to the point; and work that connects with anyone. If Saul looks for inspiration in ordinary people (“I’m looking for ideas in the culture, always scanning the culture to try and think of something obvious…” ), Parker operates similarly while scanning counter- and sub-cultures. Both artists “want to be exciting in ways that have been judged unimportant.”

Ultimately, Parker’s vast body of work presents and documents a timely, poignant, and thoroughly critical overview of the obscure political dynamics of the United States and the world. As he condemns the status quo, he condenses his narratives in playful and visually appealing artworks. He has been called the “meticulously researched chronicler of mid-twentieth-century history,” with an emphasis on subculture, and has also been described as “a commentator on the distortions of everyday reality,” distortions that he frames into colorful spectacles. Parker’s works are critical observations filled with humor and wit, which bring to light universal truths in the hope that they will form a basis for colorful resistance.

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July 23, 2012

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