One Hand Clapping: The Recent Art of Patricia Zinsmeister Parker
By Tom Wachunas
Exhibition: “Painting In The Dark” at Kent State University Downtown Art Gallery, 141 East Main St., Kent, Ohio / June 20 – July 14, 2012 / Opening Reception Thursday, June 21, 5 – 7 pm
Just when you think you might have a firm handle on Patricia Zinsmeister Parker’s aesthetic, it slips from your grasp and evades easy categorization with almost maddening regularity. While she once described her painting approach as “bipolar,” I never regarded the reference as the trembling confession of a soul tormented by anything pathological. Call it an admission by an artist ever trusting of her Muse – a Muse not confined by a single idea or style for very long.
This would no doubt be the same faithful Muse who, many years ago, convinced Parker to distrust working with her favored, traditionally trained right hand and choose to traverse more volatile, unpredictable pictorial territory. This leftist decision, as it were, was a watershed moment, and one in harmony with Parker’s solidarity with the 1970s arrival of what became known in art world circles as the ‘New York School of Bad Painting’. The irony was intentional and the reasoning behind it, according to its early adherents, went something like this: Really ‘good’ painting eschewed conventionally accurate figuration while indulging in highly expressive, often lurid color, visceral paint application, and subject matter that could be alternately funny, mysterious and fantastical, irreverent, or disturbing. And all of it was driven by the painters’ gleeful surrender to pure intuition.
Sound familiar? In retrospect, this was not a wholly new movement at all, but rather a reshuffling of ideas originally put forth by, among others, European Surrealists and Expressionists from the 1920s-30s, and the pioneering American Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s. But enough with the thumbnail history lesson.
Suffice to say that is in this heady context of Modernist painterly flux that Parker’s work developed. But it is a context that should not be viewed as a cleanly delineated niche she occupies so much as it is an entire ideological milieu which she continues to explore with singularly earnest muscularity. Think of it as the difference between being comfortably anchored on a picturesque lake and shooting the rapids of a wildly winding river.
So what are we to make of Parker’s challenging new expedition into “Painting in the Dark”? In many ways this new suite is very much in keeping with the esoteric nature of her entire ouvre. She has always been an adventurer, with her canvases being an often startling travelogue of where the river has taken her. Here is arresting evidence of a journey that began by embracing a decidedly more dreary palette than she had employed in many of her past travels into unabashedly bold color and frenetic configurations.
In citing a motivation, or initial influence in generating these paintings, Parker acknowledges the impact of Ad Reinhardt’s highly reductivist, severely dark paintings and prints executed late in his life. Her images, however, are not so utterly unforgiving in their blackness. On the other hand, this is not to say that their deftly painted surfaces, awash in brooding hues and eerily floating forms, give up their secrets easily.
Her canvases are comprised of simple grid-like structures, or stripes, or amorphous elongations that seem at once predetermined and spontaneous, often exuding a spirit of primordial mystery. Her forms have subtle auras that appear to simultaneously float atop, and emerge from within, fields of dark colors. But this darkness is neither lifeless nor without promise. Parker’s colors undulate with delightfully subtle variations in value, saturation, and intensity. And there’s often a tangible, ghostly magic in her restrained integration of finely powdered glitter with the pigments.
So now back to Parker’s Muse for a moment. In this group of paintings, I envision her at first donning the guise of one of her dark-souled sisters - the Sirens - luring Parker into murky waters. But this wily and whimsical Muse was always, after all, bright of heart, and late in the journey began singing a different, louder song, beckoning Parker back to more vibrant topographies. Hence, the inclusion of several works here with color so irresistibly electric that they seem to be exploding from the inside. Such chromatic drama is clearly the result of an evolution of sorts - a process of fully releasing the colors that were subtly lurking underneath even the darkest paintings all along. It is an evolution that brings an intriguing sense of closure to the suite.
To the extent that the excited hues and simple structure in these later paintings reverberate, alternately and to varying degrees, with the echoes of Josef Albers, Piet Mondrian, Hans Hoffman, or Mark Rothko, one could make a reasonable case for viewing this body of work as the artist’s personalized recapitulation of historic Modernist “pure painting” concerns, and the search for the unadulterated “art experience.” Call it the pursuit of essences.
As such, Parker’s new works bring to mind how Zen masters challenged or boggled their followers with koans – those apparently paradoxical statements or questions intended to aid in acquiring enlightenment. Applying one classic koan to this discourse, then, what is the sound of one hand clapping? In Parker’s case, that’s an easy one. It’s the sound of her other hand intrepidly paddling ‘round the next bend in the river.
Photos: (Top) “Dot Com” mixed media 36”x36” / “Stealing Thunder” mixed media 42”x42”