I have often heard it said that if Christ were to come back and deliver his message of peace and tolerance today, he’d be crucified all over again by his most rabidly intolerant followers. The same could be said, in a different way, of many of our most revered artistic masters. Imagine a painter as changeable and inconsistent in his method as Henri Matisse attempting to get a show in a New York gallery today. Not a chance! The operating standard in the currently market-dominated art world is product consistency above all. You could fill a booth at Miami Basel with little piles of thumbtacks, or 20 airbrushed photorealist paintings of blown-up details of inflatable beach toys, and nobody would bat an eye — but by god they’d better all be similarly conceived and manufactured! A whole generation of artists, gallerists and curators appears to have forgotten — or perhaps never learned in the first place — that the greatest works are often arrived at by dint of a risky, uncertain experimentation that is completely antithetical to the strategies of market-ready design.
But engineering a stylistic or conceptual “look” that can be dependably turned-out and then patented with an artist’s name and identity is the opposite of what the best art does. It doesn’t project anything at us, but rather invites us in to the sharing of a vision. Its purpose is not to be looked-at, but to be looked through in order to see something else — as we see through a lens, or a window, or simply our own eyes, on the way to discovering the unfolding world around us. That seeing begins with the artist herself, who, if she is genuinely searching, will find something at the intersection of the external world and her internal process that she can look at, and thereby discover meanings not previously realized.
All the dead painters I love best made a great many awful pictures in their careers. There are the occasionally ham-handed royal portraits by Goya, with skin that seems like a burn victim’s on the verge of sliding off its sub-strait of muscle and bone; there is the patchy viridian goulash of Manet’s attempts to paint the sea; or JMW Turner’s slug-like invertebrate figures: There are O’Keeffe’s more cloyingly precious Southwestern still lives; Hopper’s often clumsily rendered roadside scenes and putty-fleshed hotel room denizens. On and on it goes. All the best painters make bad paintings alongside their finest ones. It is when every work that issues from an artist’s hand precisely conforms to his or her most fully realized standard of excellence that we should begin to be suspicious. The greatest successes are built not only on a willingness to risk failure, but on multiple failures or near-misses actually having occurred along the path to that highest achievement. But if a painter feels compelled to make something perfect every time she picks up the brush, well…she will never get there at all.
Leslie Parke, a professional painter with a long and steady career of gallery and museum exhibitions stretching back into the 1970s, is an exemplary artist of this exploratory kind. Like so many American painters who came up through the second half of the 20th century in the shadow of New York’s various postwar movements, she has spent a lifetime attempting to reconcile the still-estranged parallel universes of representation and abstraction.
Parke’s way into this struggle was, from the outset, to tackle an abstracted formal order via representationally identifiable, but fundamentally disordered contents. Initially this exploration led her to copy and reinterpret masterworks by classical figurative painters, ranging from Giotto to Matisse, Ingres and Goya — work she developed through the 1980s and 90s and in a five-month residency in 1994 at Monet’s studio in Giverny in France.
Still grappling with the figure after that sojourn in the land of Impressionism, Parke turned to the battered landscape of prize fighter’s faces, captured from photographs of ongoing bouts. These echo Bellows and other gritty Ashcan-era painters of the urban scene who were, in their time, also trying to find a distinctly American rejoinder to the Impressionists’ sun-dappled modernism. But Parke soon realized that both the light and the natural environment she’d been exposed to at Giverny had planted their seeds. A growing interest in understanding nature by way of the effect of the sun’s rays reflected off and through the interstitial spaces of its organic forms — its waterways, hoarfrost and tree branches — led her back into a series of land and waterscapes.
Eventually, Parke settled into a still life object-based realism, rendered in vertical compositions that strike a delicate balance between moving chaos and grid-like formalism. The most fully realized of this series, which she painted through the mid 2000s, feature cluttered topographies of china cups and saucers, immersed in unspecified bodies of water that could be anywhere from the kitchen sink to forest streams or tidal races along the beach. These paintings of baptized crockery, as well as a later series of compacted trash and plastic-wrapped commercial and industrial products, all are rendered with a robust paint application which feels nearly Impressionistic up-close but resolves at a distance into an exacting observational realism.
Despite that one senses a clearly directional chronology to these explorations, Parke is a painter who works all her different avenues of interest simultaneously — tackling one kind of picture for a time, then breaking off to leap into another parallel track on a related but distinct form. And yet, like her realism, which resolves its clarity at a remove, the strength and urgency of Parke’s formal eye settles as the dominant theme of all her work when one stands back to review the whole of her career.
Now in her fourth decade as a painter, all Parke’s many languages have broken loose of their moorings to the literal and have fully embraced a new kind of representationally-founded abstraction that is entirely her own. Over the past several years, she has embarked on a vigorous amalgam of constantly diverging and re-integrating themes from each of her principal forms of the past two decades. These include the densely forested landscapes of tree-branches, some vertical bodies of uninterrupted sea, plastic-wrapped bales of trash, a sprawling mountain-scape of what could be a Baroque wedding dress draped across a bed, and various other, often mysterious forms. As has always been the case, Parke’s many visual languages are marinated in art historical precedents. The tree pictures pay an unabashed homage to Pollock without feeling derivative. A giant, vibrating, horizontal chalk-board of repeating white circles on a black background evokes Cy Twombly, but only by showing us what that artist never mastered himself: a tightly-sprung, electric calligraphy evoking the rhythms of the spheres, of gravity swirling around and through black holes, and charging at the viewer from out of the sublime vacuum of the cosmos.
Returning to the opening observations in this review, the strength in Parke’s work is enabled not only by her ample skill, but by the risks that do not fear to challenge its most dependable formulae. Not every one of her new pieces is a flawless tour de force, but the occasional stumbles, or odd divergences, are precisely what enable her greatest successes, just as similarly reaching but faltering exertions enabled many of the best paintings we know from history.
For anybody who loves not only painting, but the true ethos of its eternally questing process, this latest body of Leslie Parke’s work is arrayed to great advantage in an ongoing exhibition titled Continuous Flow, which is on view until December 18th at SUNY Oneonta’s Fine Arts Center.
For information or directions, contact The Martin-Mullen Art Gallery at 108 Ravine Parkway, Oneonta, NY 13820.
The exhibition can also be viewed by looking at the artist’s dropbox gallery at https://shwca.se/SUNY-PARKE