A Righteous Left Hand
By Tom Wachunas
“…It is my hope that the gallery audience will enjoy these life drawings and understand that all two dimensional art is based on drawing first and foremost. Perhaps, more importantly, the act of drawing conveys the thought process of the artist in a most fundamental way and in its most pure form.” -Patricia Zinsmeister Parker
EXHIBIT: Heads Or Tails: Contemplations of the Body with Patricia Zinsmeister Parker, at Translations Art Gallery THROUGH FEBRUARY 1, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton, Wednesdays-Saturdays Noon to 5 p.m. http://www.translationsart.com/headsortails
In a scene from one of my favorite all-time films, Lust for Life (1956), an exasperated Anthony Quinn, playing Paul Gauguin, barks at Kirk Douglas, playing Vincent van Gogh, “You paint too fast!” The tight-jawed Douglas growls back, “You look to fast!”
If van Gogh never said those exact words directly to Gaughin, he did say as much about the public’s general viewing habits in a letter to his brother, Theo. I often wonder if his 19th century observation doesn’t still stand up as an apt indictment of modern-day lazy looking. That said, know in advance that it takes some real time to genuinely appreciate the idiosyncratic pictorial content of Parker’s figure drawings and portraits.
And again, I’m reminded of van Gogh’s assessment of his own compulsion to paint from life. He likened it to being overtaken by a “terrible lucidity” when beholding the world he saw, thrusting him into a painting frenzy. In this large collection of works spanning some 30 years, Parker often displays a similarly urgent, frenetic energy. Yet for all their apparently raw and quirky appearance – their conscious departure from the rigid formalities of “refined” pictorial illusionism – these nude studies and portrait heads are uncannily lucid and true in their own right, not to mention intensely expressive.
So then, Parker’s conscious departure from traditional representation? It originally grew from her interest in right-brain/left-brain workings and her cathartic decision many years ago to make images with her untrained left hand. It was, so to speak, a leftist decision which greatly expanded the vocabulary of her mark-making. To some viewers, many of the pieces here might seem scornful of conventional “good taste” at first blush – a kind of indictable aesthetic offense, perhaps. But Parker’s methodology in fact freed her to express more playful, intuitive and visceral possibilities within the picture plane while still demonstrating, interestingly enough and to varying degrees, admirable draughtsmanship.
Some drawings are more “sketchy” and extemporaneous than others, wherein Parker’s hand appears somewhat tentative before arriving at just the “right” rendering. In those, Parker nevertheless achieves a remarkably palpable vitality and sense of animated movement.
In general, most of her contemplations of the human form, even in their most reductive or “primitive” manifestations, are confident, facile orchestrations of visual cues. The heft and flow of particular lines, splashes of bold color, or variations in value, for example, are orchestrated to effectively convey all manner of well-observed anatomical nuancing, from a weight-bearing leg or subtle twist of the torso, to a foreshortened limb or demure tilt of a head. And aside from such formal considerations, there’s also the matter of the wild range of expressivity. These figures are variously familiar or bizarre, dignified or awkward, quiet or shrieking, transparent or mysterious.
Wilder still, and equally expressionistic, is Parker’s painting series of 13 portraits, all made in 1997 – clearly a heady year for her, pun intended. Here is a riveting wildness and child-like painterly abandon that brings to mind the art brut of Jean Dubuffet, for instance. These faces, however, have a haunting and otherwise fascinating immediacy and electrifying color sensibility all their own. Brutal? Yes, sometimes. The more startling images look as if they scratched and clawed their way out of the deepest caverns of Parker’s psyche. These are well complemented by several visages of clearly less severe outlook, having the lyrical aura of personal remembrance about them. A few are even delightfully decorative in a way, though never frivolous.
In order for us, as viewers, to truly see all that this show has to offer, we need to be deliberate in focusing our minds on looking slowly. And if there’s an indictable offense anywhere to be found in this mix, it would surely be in our unwillingness to be arrested.
PHOTOS, from top: Block Head; Women of San Miguel de Allende; Deux Models; Long Hair; Spots, Dots, and Memory