Culture & Arts

Escape The Ugliness Of Everyday Life With Erik Parker's Beautifully Warped Work

Escape The Ugliness Of Everyday Life With A Series Of Hypnotic Swimming Holes


SEEN, 2014 Acrylic on canvas 64" x 84"

"I guess making paintings for me is about responding to living," painter Erik Parker explained to The Huffington Post. "I couldn't see any other way of doing things. It's like a broken narrative in response to what it means to be a human being."

Parker's massive canvases contain all the abrasive colors and warped wanderings of an hour wasted on the internet, only instead of leaving your head numb and buzzing, they provide a strange sort of clarity, as if you'd gone on a hike. Most often, they depict the most unnatural nature-scapes you've ever seen, with pink swampy waters, Seussian trees gone awry and flowers plucked straight from your uncle's party shirt. It's the kind of nature that links the past up with the present, aligning 1970s psychedelia and old school kitschy landscaping with whatever mutant greenery our future holds for us.

A new series of Parker's work, titled "¿What About Now?" is currently on view at Madrid's Galería Javier López. They'll make their U.S. debut this fall at New York's Paul Kasmin Gallery.


Run Down Vanity, 2015, Acrylic on Canvas, 30" x 22"

Parker, born in Germany and based in New York, studied with Peter Saul at the University of Texas, Austin before getting his MFA from Purchase College of the State University of New York. "What I learned from [Peter Saul] was: Sure! You can paint a landscape, talk about current events, and incorporate some history in a single artwork," said Parker. "It's a challenge, but why not?" There's a lot uniting the two painters, including but not limited to a rebellious spirit, political awareness coupled with charming irreverence, a persistent counter-cultural itch and an aversion to formalism.

The latter inclination was revealed when discussing Saul's current show at Venus Over Manhattan, comprised of works made in the 1960s. "I was familiar with a lot of those paintings when they came out and they're still, you know, really really cool," Parker said. "Way more interesting than Jasper Johns -- right? Like, Jasper Johns is mild. It's just like, really? What does that have to do with anything?"

Saul's influence is certainly evident in Parker's newest series, a super-sized travel brochure for a flattened landscape dwelling somewhere between your television screen and a hallucinatory trip. An organic logic governs the structure of the acidic-tinted canvases, with wild vines and dripping leaves organizing the other contents of the frame. Each image recalls elements of everything from Symbolism and Pop Art to countercultural comics, 1980s graffiti and outsider art.


Burst the Curse, 2015, Acrylic on canvas, 28" x 30"

Although stylistically Parker's current exhibition is all over the map -- and yet, undeniably all his own -- the subject matter is slightly easier to pin down. "I think I'm always trying to paint swimming holes," he explained. "Searching for swimming holes is something I always like to do. I haven't really questioned it or thought about it too much. But I think that's something we can all agree on: swimming holes are awesome. Or else, there's something wrong with you."

The content was also influenced by the particularly brutal winter New Yorkers faced this year, and Parker's desire to escape it via the portal of his studio. He conjured the spirit of summer by playing Brazilian music, Bossa Nova mostly, while he worked. And the Melvins. "When I'm working alone I listen to a lot of the Melvins," he said.

Yet there were other more sinister things on Parker's playlist as well, relating to the recent onslaught of dismal news regarding police brutality. "We have a lot of cops killing people, killing black people. So I was listening to the news a lot, as well as this book called The New Jim Crow. I was reminded -- I'm in my 40s -- that nothing fucking changes. It seems like every 20 years we have to have this discussion again. If you look at the early 1990s or late '80s hip hop -- NWA, Ice Cube, all these dudes on the west coast. They were talking about the same thing. And if you look back to early blues like Lead Belly, they're talking about cops killing people. It never changes."

Looking at most of Parker's works, drenched in acidic colors and tropical destinations, you'd likely fail to notice their association with current events. And that's precisely the point. "It's just cathartic for me," he explained. "I'm just trying to respond to what's going on, because I can't do much about it. Some days you turn on the news and you can't believe these things are going on. You can't believe someone is sitting on death row perfectly innocent for 25 years, and then the courts overrule it and say, yes, this man is innocent, but they still can't get him out. You hear things like that and all you can do is go -- well, beaches look good. Let's just get out of our world, you know what I mean? It's just a way to cope."

Even the natural escapes the world provides us, Parker adds, are likely in jeopardy. "Everything is bittersweet," he says. "The landscapes of the beaches and stuff. These things are leaving us too." But what's harrowing in life is often riveting in art. "It's more interesting than sweet-sweet."


Rigged, 2014, 78" x 76" , Acrylic and collage on canvas

Parker's compulsion to create in the face of the chaos of everyday life aligns him in spirit with the outsider artists he often resembles in style. In particular, he's inspired by Joseph Yoakum, a self-taught artist of African American and Native American descent whose landscape drawings were created entirely from his imagination. "What I really like about Yoakum is that that dude never went anywhere. I come down to the studio, I live a few blocks away, and I'm just making up these places. You're flipping through Instagram, find an image of a place, Google it, project it onto a canvas and then draw it your own way. You sort of have your own location and can just make up a name for it."

Aside from his ability to travel endlessly without going anywhere at all, Yoakum also possessed a genuineness that appeals to Parker. "When you break into the category of outsider or self-taught art, I find that it's totally sincere. They could give a shit about making money or being in a museum or something. It's about the urgency of making something, so that thing can exist."

Parker doesn't place himself in this category, explaining that coming face-to-face with such authentic art-making can make him feel "like a phony." However, his urge to create worlds -- overgrown, neon, sharp-edged swamplands to be exact -- to combat the ugliness in the world around him, doesn't seem to be all that different. "The art is just a way for me to deal with this stuff on a regular, day-to-day basis. Just being a human being in this world."

"¿What About Now?" runs until May 6, 2015 at Galería Javier López in Madrid.

Before You Go

1973: Destroy All Monsters Collective, "Greetings from Detroit", from the installation work, "Strange Früt: Rock Apocrypha, 2001
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
Kelley formed experimental noise band "Destroy All Monsters" with Jim Shaw, Cary Loren and Niagara (Lynn Rovner) when they were attending University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He described it as "a pastiche of serious avant-garde music, free jazz, and hard rock, leavened with black humor..." The cut-and-paste improv rock strays from conventional musicality, opting instead for the vibrating textures of an aural collage. "I thought of 'Destroy All Monsters' as an art band," Kelley told Interview. "I was much more invested in Krautrock bands like Kraftwerk or the machinic disco of Giorgio Moroder than I was in the emerging New York punk movement."
1978: Catholic Birdhouse, from Birdhouses series
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
In his final year at CalArts Kelley made a series of birdhouse sculptures transforming crafty, DIY artworks into the holy realm of conceptual art. The houses, including "Catholic Birdhouse" pictured above, incorporate not-very-birdlike conditions into their creation, adding a bizarre element to the traditional handiwork. The works also weave in Kelley's ongoing investigation of family and architectural forms that may or may not be homes. Note: This particular birdhouse is not on view.
1980: The Little Girl's Room
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
In a statement written by Kelley he explained that this project "grew out of a dream within a dream in which a 'little girl' envisioned the face of a pimplike man whose smile revealed an infinity of sharp teeth." After awakening from the dream, the little girl transforms her room from traditionally girly to minimalist and geometric, symbolizing her entrance into puberty. This piece invokes Kelley's interest in adolescence, puberty and the darker moments of childhood. Although Kelley originally intended to create a performance to accompany the installation, he later decided the installation should function alone.
1983: The Banana Man
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
Kelley's 28-minute video project pieced together a character study of the Banana Man, a character from the children's television show "Captain Kangaroo." Having never watched the Banana Man himself, Kelley enlisted his childhood friends to recount their memories of him, memories which were weaved together into a fragmented narrative.
1986: Trickle Down and Swaddling Clothes
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
These works were included in "Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile," which examined issues of light and darkness, representation and simulation through lenses of Western philosophy, American painting and American history. The series contained everything from Rorschach tests to tainted religious symbolism, creating an alternate narrative of the heroic male through spirituality, art and politics. Part of the original installation could only be accessed by crawling through an entrance below a painting of a cave.
1987-93: Half A Man
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
This project takes the form of a complex psychodrama about innocence corrupted, that incorporates questions about gender and the family. "Eviscerated Corpse," a 1989 installation of stuffed animals and rag dolls, sewn together to morph into a human-centipede-esque serpent of cutified commodities. The piece also dismantled the association of dealing with craft objects as "woman's work."
1987: More Love Hours Then Can Ever Be Repaid and The Wages of Sin
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
This piece, also part of the "Half a Man" project, weaves together used children's toys onto a wall hanging, resembling a nightmarishly cute interpretation of an AbEx canvas. "I said if each one of these toys took 600 hours to make then that’s 600 hours of love; and if I gave this to you, you owe me 600 hours of love; and that’s a lot. And if you can’t pay it back right away it keeps accumulating," Kelley said in an interview with BOMB. "That’s more love that you can ever pay back. So what? You’re just fucked then. I wasn’t even thinking about the objects as objects, I was thinking about them as just hours-of-attention."
1988: Pay for Your Pleasure
Photo: Brian Forrest, courtesy The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts
"Pay for Your Pleasure" consists of 42 colorful banners depicting poets, politicians and artists, lining the walls of a hallway. Each banner features a quotation comparing artmaking and criminality in some way, such as Francis Picabia's quote "I love the unfrocked priest, the freed convict;; they are without past and without future and so live in the present." At the end of the hall you'll find an artwork made by a local violent criminal and at the entrance, a donation box for a victim's rights group. "The gooey notion that art should somehow be good for you -- Vitamin C for the soul -- is very American, and it's a sentiment Kelley skewers with Catholic wit," Christopher Knight wrote in the LA Times.
1991-99: Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites
Photo credit: Nic Tenwiggenhorn, Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
These fuzzy planets have become some of Kelley's most iconic pieces, the discarded toys clustered and sanitized to the ranks of serious sculptures. "'With Deodorized Central Mass with Satellites' Mike Kelley had created a quintessentially American environment," Bettina Gilois explained, "and explored the American dream expressed through the excess of consumption, bulk buying, and the habit of collecting by a prosperous society that believed its own myth;; a society obsessed with luxury and life-style, lavishly garish color coordination and the most transient objects of low quality, which ironically stand for quality of life. All of it scented and deodorized like the constant cleansing of a bad conscience."Note: This work is not on view at MOCA.
1987/2003 : From My Institution to Yours
Photo courtesy of MOCA, Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
This piece, which was originally shown in LACMA, features stock animation character drawings found floating around CalArts accompanied by slogans posted around the school (which was also his workplace.) The materials were gathered from sites of menial labor, exploring the space that often exists between museum-goers and workers.
1989: With Malice Towards None; With Charity For All, from Reconstructed History
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
This series consists of photographs and collages created by defacing illustrations from second-hand American History textbooks that Kelley found. The doodles and impromptu captions are reminiscent of adolescent yearbook scribbles or graffiti. John Waters described it as "a real history text book that Mike defaced with glee, the same thing all of us who were bored in high school wanted to do in reaction to teachers who didn’t challenge us or discouraged our rabid interests. Our boredom turned to anger and then to rage and if we were lucky, then to art. 'Barf' adds Mike to the patriotic 'Signing of the Declaration of Independence' illustration and now, on the 4th of July, I can finally feel patriotic thanks to Mike Kelley’s troublemaking defiant reinvention of this school book."
1990: Nostalgic Depiction of the Innocence of Childhood
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
This photo (which serves as one half of a diptych), features a man and woman ( the LA based artists Bob Flannagan and Sheree Rose) squatting naked over stuffed animals, the man's butt smeared with dark liquid. The fake pornography references and satirizes the understanding that children's imaginations are more vivid than adults', extending this advantage to encompass sexual fantasies. The sepia tone of the photograph adds to the ambiguity of what exactly is going on and what exactly is smeared all over that buttocks.
1991: Ahh...Youth!
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
Eight frontal photos rest side by side, most capturing the faces of thrift-store stuffed animals, with one depicting Kelley himself. Standing out against the fuzzy majority, Kelley appears menacing if not completely sociopathic, like an unwelcome stranger peeking into a child's bedroom. The arresting image also served as the cover of Sonic Youth's "Dirty."
1993: Roth/Mouse/Wolverton Drawing Exercise #8
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
Here Kelley toys with the powers of attraction and repulsion, using monstrous features, warped distortions and grotesque details to create surprisingly appealing images. "My personal interest in the monstrous is more sexual in orientation," Kelley explained. "I have always been, primarily, interested in abstract monsters-the blob monster. When I thought about it, I realized this stemmed from my childhood, when I didn't know what female genitals looked like. I thought the blob monsters in films and comic books were what genitals must look like, so such monsters were very sexual to me. They were not purely repellent-they were mystifying and alluring."
1995: Educational Complex
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
The architectural piece above contains small models of every school Kelley ever attended and his childhood home, with the spaces he could not remember left as blank. He facetiously claimed these spots were forgotten because he'd been abused there and had blocked out the memory as a response to the trauma. Kelley was intrigued by Repressed Memory Syndrome, a psychological theory that aligns child abuse with dysfunctional behavior. "What was my problem? Why was I playing with these toys? Had I been abused?" Kelley explained of his artistic motivation. "Was I a pedophile? I didn't understand what they were talking about. But when I did a bit of research, I discovered how culturally omnipresent this infatuation with child abuse was. Since everybody seemed to be so interested in my personal biography, I thought I should make some overtly biographical work-pseudo-biographical work."
1996: Untitled #3 from Land O'Lakes series
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
The muse for this series was the woman on the "Land O'Lakes" butter packaging, originally made by Arthur Hanson in 1928. Growing up, Kelley would squeeze his butter carton in a way that made her knees appear to be her breasts. "She was the object of my childhood sexual fantasies," Kelley explained. A series of drawings and paintings contort the girl in various ways, inverting, multiplying, sexualizing and making psychedelic the iconic American image.
1999: Framed and Frame (Miniature Reproduction "Chinatown Wishing Well" Built by Mike Kelley after "Miniature Reproduction 'Seven Star Cavern' Built by Prof. H. K. Lu"
Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
Kelley created a life-sized reconstruction of a wishing well in LA's Chinatown, toying with the space between real and imagined spaces. The realistic sculpture is complete with Chinese figurines and coins from imaginary well-wishers. The installation also contains an NSFW portion. A reminder from Carolina Miranda: "Don’t forget to take a peek under and inside many of his pieces, since they often seem to contain little surprises. Under the architectural models, you’ll find a mattress; a pink dresser hides books about sex and a packet of birth control pills; and inside the 'Wishing Well' is a mattress, a box of Kleenex, some candles and tub of Vaseline. (This latter space he once described as a 'crawl space/fuck room.')"Note: This is a two part piece. Only half of the work is pictured.
1999-2001: Kandors
Getty Images
Kelley takes Kandor, the capital of Superman's fictional origin planet Krypton, which, in the comics, was shrunken by the villainous Brainiac and stored in Superman's hyperbaric chamber. Kelley's three-dimensional sculptures encompass various Kandors described throughout the Superman comic's history. "When I researched it, I discovered that Kandor had never been drawn the same way twice in the Superman comics," Kelley explained. "It was such an unimportant part of the Superman mythos that a fixed city plan was never developed." Kelley originally intended to create Kandor-Con 2000, a convention for Superman fanatics devoted to this mythical utopia. But the piece, about more than just comic books, speaks to alienation, imagination and the home. "Kandor now sits, frozen in time, a perpetual reminder of his inability to escape that past, and his alienated relationship to his present world."
2000-2011: Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #34 (The King and Us/The Queens and Me), 2010
Photo: Fredrik Nilsen, Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
"Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstructions" was originally conceived as a 365-part video project, one for each day of the year,meant to cycle completely in a 24-hour event. He completed 36 of the videos, all based off found photographs of “extracurricular activities” and combined them with sculptural elements. The first is a one-act melodrama that restages a high school yearbook photograph of a play, and numbers 2-32 also known as Day Is Done, are a lo-fi series of video-sculptures featuring vampires, hillbillies, goths and other characters. A particularly trippy moment of the series,( seen above), features a life-sized Colonel Sanders peering into a diorama featuring a mini Freud puffing on a cigar. Identical swirling colors adorn the miniature floor and the large-scale one.
2005-2013: Mobile Homestead
Photo credit: CorineVermuelen, Copyright Estate of Mike Kelley
This installation is a full size reproduction of the home Kelley grew up in, located in Westland, Michigan just west of Detroit. The front of the house is removable and designed like a mobile home so that it may be driven in and around the environs of Detroit doing "public" service.. The remainder of the house rests on a lot by the MOCAD and is used for community projects and exhibitions, such as "haircuts, social services, meeting space and a place to hold barbecues and perhaps for the homeless to pick up mail." Kelley also documented the people and places he encountered during a 2010 journey of the Mobile Homestead in a three part video work, which showed at the 2012 Whitney Biennial.

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