Glossary recently met with San Francisco based artist Erik Parra at his Minnesota Street Project (MSP) studio. Parra is one of four artists recently awarded a residency at MSP, sponsored by Liquitex, as part of their Research Residency Program. The program coincides with the July 2017 release of their Cadmium-free heavy body paints. The award included a studio space for three months and hundreds of dollars’ worth of Liquitex product for the artists to use.
We approached this Review as Dialogue as a studio visit, and got a sneak peek at the work in progress for his upcoming solo exhibition at Eleanor Harwood Gallery, March 3rd.
We talked about emotional resonance, paintings within paintings and politics of subject-matter. Enjoy!
Glossary – We are recording; it’s on!
Erik Parra – Me, me, me, me, me . . . Can you hear me?
G – The first thing I notice in looking around the space is all of the blue tape, which is particularly interesting because it looks like you are using the tape not only to mask off areas, but as a palette too.
EP – I realized that when I am trying to glaze an area, the tape is getting in my way, I started using it as a palette and dabbing on it. Especially when I “Virgo-out” and get really into a small area. It’s really humid with the recent rains, and it takes forever for the paint to dry . . .
G – When did your residency start?
EP – I got the keys on December 5th, but I couldn’t start right away because I got pneumonia! But I got a lot of rest, and listened to my mom and didn’t go in the studio right away because I really wanted to get well and maximize my time once I got here. It drove me crazy because I don’t like sitting still—if I can’t work I am in torture! Unless of course I am watching a riveting film . . .
G – Like film-noir?
EP – Oh yeah, I am a huge film noir fan.
G – Visually, you are really capturing the film-noir atmosphere in your work; we’ve talked about that before. Did I notice on your Instagram that this is the biggest painting you have worked on in a while? [points at large canvas] (pictured above)
EP – This is the largest painting I have done since grad school in 2004. Ryan Mc Junkin made the stretchers for me.
G – But what about your installations that you have done; haven’t you done bigger things?
EP – Well, this is the largest stand-alone two-dimensional painting . . . Yeah, in Reno I did a 9 foot tall painting on Tyvek that wrapped around the whole space. It was called This: A Contemporary Situation, and was installed at the University of Nevada Reno. I had to paint it 12 feet at a time, and roll it up and paint the next 12 feet. I used a traditional straight-up scale drawing to do it. When I got in the space I touched it up. Inside I built a stadium that you could enter out of shipping pallets, it was 11 feet; that was the largest installation I have made.
G – But when it comes to paintings, you’re used to working in a more intimate size.
EP – The challenge is to make the idea translate no matter what size. The primary viewer is going to see this online, in a jpg, so I want the shapes and scale to translate. The other challenge is working in acrylic, the paint dries fast, so covering large areas is a different practical experience than covering small areas. You don’t think about it until you start working on it, and then you realize, “Wait a minute—the paint isn’t acting like it usually does.” I have been doing a lot of work with spray, too. And in my other studio I am used to spraying, but here we have to take the work outside to spray.
G – Is everything I am looking at finished?
EP – There is a lot of work in progress here, although some of the smaller works are finished. Function Follows Form #1, and Function Follows Form #2, for example. Most of them are pretty close.
G – I noticed there are a lot of mirrored compositions—is that new for you?
EP – No, I’ve been working on that for a while. The "filmic" inspiration with these is the twins from The Shining. You have two things that are similar but different, that are creepy and disconcerting. I am pushing that idea a little further, and there are literal mirrors in some of the paintings. [the paintings do not include actual mirrors, but images of mirrors that have been painted into the composition, with objects “reflected” across the rooms onto the painted mirrors.]
G – There is also repeated subject-matter, such as these two plants, one for each canvas.
EP – Yeah, I had this thought the other day that this is the first time . . . so, before this I have been working on interiors, and the idea came to me the other day that all of these images are from one “house” or place. It’s less about mapping out all the rooms of the house, or even a dream house [but about these singular rooms].
G – It’s an imaginary place, though. When you are in that space mentally, when you are working in this place, are you imagining people, and stories of their lives? I don’t think I have ever seen people in your work. So for example, this painting of a bedroom with the ruffled sheet is very different than the moody and stoic rooms I have seen your past work.
EP – Yeah, so I have been thinking about the notion that there might be a narrative without dictating the narrative. I was thinking about on one end of the spectrum I could for example have this room with blood splattered on the floor and that would be a very specific narrative, but I don’t want to prescribe the narrative. So much of the work is completed after the work is viewed and discussed [by others].
I don’t want to tell you what the narrative is, but I want to put things in there that you, the viewer, can find or imagine for yourself. In some of the work, there is also a filmic device of zooming in—we are getting a close look at one detail of a room.
G – So are there any imaginary characters that are playing out roles when you work?
EP – Sometimes, yes. For example, recently at City College [where Parra teaches] we received a bunch of materials from a woman whose husband had passed away—he was an architect. So, I don’t normally have a story that I check in on, but I was thinking about these works around the idea of making this dead architect a fictional hero; but it’s not that specific. I even made an effort to not research architects who may have passed away in San Francisco because I wanted to maintain that sense of ambiguity.
For example, the furnishings in my work reference specific designers or an era, but I change it slightly so that it removes the ego of the designer so that it is just another "modern chair". Some aspects of this work is about the shift from modern to contemporary, which was a very controlled intellectual movement based on controlled obsolescence, based on patterns of consumption.
Because if you have something that is always contemporary, then as a consumer you always have design options to outfit your house. There are always new things to buy. That’s more of the story that I think about when I am painting—that a bunch of guys sat around, ‘How can we make more money? Well, we can make furniture cheaper'.
G – 'And we can make new ones every year!'
EP – 'And we can build it so it's disposable too—that it’s not worth moving and you have to buy new things when you move!' I am definitely interested in the failed utopia of modernism, but I’ve been ditching talking about that with the work because I am more interested in the cultural nostalgia that surrounds the idea of these people sitting around and deciding our lives.
And more importantly, [this cheapness and disposable-ness] was so detrimental to artisans and craftspeople.
I have had people read my artist statement and ask me, “How am I supposed to think about 1960s radical politics when I look at this work?” Well, it’s not meant to be a specific story from that time, about a particular person—they aren’t illustrative—they aren’t illustrating.
I’ve been thinking about history painting; history painting tends to be allegorical, where you have these characters that arranged like in a play—that are fixed. In those cases, the painter becomes this kind of director that has fabricated this aspect of the history allegory. But I’m just selecting—I am picking and choosing things that don’t have a fixed allegorical position.
So, going back to this bedroom, the decision to make the sheets ruffled, and to set the lighting at a certain time of day is getting close to a what seems like a particular narrative, but I don’t want to get too specific, like gives clues to a scene—like the clock set a 6:45 am or anything like that.
G – Yes, these aren’t a specific moment in time; they are an era, an ethos.
EP – Right.
G – Because there are no people, the viewer is forced to recall history in a broader sense: What was happening during mid-century modernism, during the early part of the Cold War; what has happened after the Cold War ended—with consumerism, with capitalism, and domestic issues. Speaking of which, I never see kitchens in your work.
EP – I focus on a lot of “leisure” spaces. I feel that the minute I include a kitchen in the work I am going to risk getting into gender politics. Part of the reason that I don’t use the figure was because in the past I used the figure in my painting, and the minute I would have someone in my studio they would want to talk about racial politics. If they had any stake in the game or any soap box to get on my paintings became an entryway for them to talk about their own issues.
G – A typical grad school experience . . .
EP – Yeah, it would be comments like: “You’re Mexican, why can’t I tell you are Mexican by looking at your paintings?” So, removing the figure was a conscience effort. Now, if I put in figures the paintings might be less “creepy” [moody], but I feel that the way they are now has more emotional resonance without people.
G – There is something there now so that the viewer can enter the painting . . . [pointing to unfinished area] There is so much happening right here.
EP – That’s the painting within the painting. It’s moments that I leave in there, when you get to see all the way through to the underpainting. It’s a composition within a composition. I like to leave a trail of breadcrumbs all they back to the beginning. In other works I have another smaller painting on the wall of a room for example, and it’s its own painting within the painting.
G – So, what do you think of the colors and the new paints that you got from your Liquitex prize? Some artists are very driven by their materials, such as using only discarded house paint, or only a particular brand for its texture and colors.
EP – I really think they have it all covered . . . I can’t tell the difference between the new cadmium-free colors and the originals. I don’t have brand loyalty to paint, but I do like some of the new things I was able to try and will continue to use them. What I do is a fair amount of research on the pigments, and used a lot of Golden before this—their heavy body paints. But with Liquitex my favorite things I have been able to try are the paint markers, the fluid paints, and the ink. They also released a line of “muted” colors which I will definitely be adding to my palette—I love these off-colors—they’re just really great colors right out of the tube.
G – You have a show coming up; what has it been like in the studio these days, and trying these new things?
EP – I have been cranking in the studio full time for a while because I was off from teaching for the holiday break. The only way I could have done the show with Eleanor [Harwood] so soon is because acrylic dries so fast.
G – I notice that there are a lot of cut-outs as well. Are you hand cutting the shapes that you use?
EP – I use a variety of hand-cut stencils. It’s a riff on the traditional approach to creating illusionistic space on the canvas. Controlling edges that are next to each other, making close edges crisp and far away edges softer . . . but I am using those techniques much looser, in a more contemporary way.
Some new things I have been doing are incorporating new rooms, such as the bedroom . . . and I have been compressing and removing perspective and messing with the architecture so you can’t tell where the walls end or begin.
G – That gives an unsettling strangeness to the spaces.
EP – Yeah, they are technically spaces that could never exist. And like my other shows, I might be incorporating some elements that come from the paintings into the space. It’s not a one-to-one object, like my show at state or Sam Freeman in late 2016.
G – When you create sculpture, you are pulling the narrative off the canvas, you’ve made a three-dimensional space for people to inhabit. You have a room, and the paintings are part of that fabricated scene, which also have their smaller included elemental paintings. So how do we explain that—is it the 4th wall, like in a movie? Would you be perhaps exploring film as the next phase of the installation?
EP – I am not exploring film or photography with this work. Many times the shows are set up so that when you entered the room you were entering a painting; there was the installation, the paintings on the wall and the paintings within those . . . logically it can’t go anywhere else, this is where I am at right now.
Erik Parra, History by Choice
March 3 - April 14, 2018
Eleanor Harwood Gallery
1275 Minnesota Street, Suite 206
San Francisco, CA 94107
Wednesday – Saturday 11am-5:00pm
& by appointment
*First Saturday of every month, open until 8pm
More information on the: Liquitex Research Residency Program.
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