The madding crowd is the subject for today. When John A. Parks first came to New York in the late ‘70s, he did several paintings of the city. He was under the influence of the then-new super-real painters with their deadpan approach. He painted the view from the World Trade Center and a few street views. But with no real attachment to the place, “I felt I was just reporting from the outside,” he says. “I suspected that I had a tourist’s eye. In any case my interests went elsewhere.” Now, after four decades he can paint NYC with the eye of a native. His new exhibition, In New York, opened on March 26 and runs through April 25 at 532 Gallery Thomas Jaeckel. I asked him about this exciting new look at the city through the people who comprise the mass that so many of us love.
Why has it taken you so long to make paintings about New York City since coming here over four decades ago?
I was homesick and I began to paint London from afar, going back to make sketches and take photographs and then working the paintings up on West End Avenue. This began a very long series of works about England and English life viewed as an expatriate. Over time I explored and riffed on many of the myths, tropes, self-delusions and sacred cows of the Brits, from the national passion with gardening to the absurd carnivals of busby-clad guardsmen and worshipful reverence of public institutions. My last exhibition was a series of finger paintings showing scenes from my English childhood, done from memory. After the show my friend and art dealer, Thomas Jaeckel, remarked that I was painting about things that were now very distant from my life. Why not paint about my current experience? At first I dismissed the idea but it refused to go away. I began to think about what I would paint, and my thoughts began to turn towards the city and its people, or more exactly to my experience of New York, the daily plunge into crowds and raw life, the sheer scale, energy, velocity and overwhelming multifarious activity that make up the place. It seemed impossible to paint, so I decided to try.
You write in the catalog to your show, “You paint something best when you don’t know how to paint it.” Can you explain?
As an artist, when I’m trying to take on something new in concept or subject or following a new hunch, then things get way more risky and exciting. It’s an adventure in which the insights, skills and methods you have used in the past may no longer work or be useful. The viewer will sense this excitement. The work may be more raw, less resolved and edgier. But it will have the frisson of discovery.
There is a long history of painting or drawing crowds and in your catalog you mention the great British caricaturists Hogarth and Rowlandson. There is also a legacy of painters on New York. I see bits of the Ash Can school and Reginald Marsh. Who if anyone were you seeing in your mind’s eye as you did these?
I’m a huge fan of Breughel the Elder. His paintings of village life, country dances, weddings, festivals and so on took on the task of painting whole swaths of a community, marshaling figures and narrative details. Moreover, he infused his paintings with a robust sense of life and great visual pleasure. I’d never presume to compare myself with such a very great painter but that idea of painting a whole society and its mores was very much in the back of my mind. Hogarth was very instructive when it came to organizing crowds, and Rowlandson’s romping humor, backed with an eagle eye and glorious draftsmanship, is a big inspiration. The English artist Stanley Spencer was a further influence, particularly his ability to simplify figures and animate a composition with angular movement and flexible space. Amongst the Americans, I’m much taken with George Bellows and his early painterly pictures of New York, which I think are probably the most successful paintings of the city and its energy. John Sloan was also extraordinary. He would trawl through the streets with piles of sketchbooks, collecting scenes that he then worked up in the studio. It was a modus operandi that I tried to imitate. Similarly Isabel Bishop, who worked from a studio in Union Square for 50 years or so, is someone I’ve long admired. One of my paintings, “Girls 14th Street,” is dedicated to her.
There are some images where you seem to paint what you see. Others, like the rumble in “Stock Exchange” (above), that seem like you wished it to happen. How did you decide which approach to take and with what scene?
Well of course it depends on what is meant by painting what one sees. All of the pictures are completely reinvented versions of my experience of the city. I collected the figures for the crowds by sketching on site, sketching from photography I did on site and sketching from video. I selected individuals, types, postures, poses, situations and excitements that I felt would dramatize and heighten the viewer’s sense of the place. I then constructed the crowds to create movement, allow readability and entertain the eye. I redrew the settings, usually allowing for a higher point of view than is generally possible and setting up movement in the architecture to reflect the movement of the people. In the painting “Union Square,” for instance, I moved some of the furniture around, shifting statues and props so that I could tell the whole story of the place by including the Hare Krishna singers as well as chess players, the food market and people lounging elsewhere in the square. However, it is true that the painting “Stock Exchange” is more removed from my direct experience. I wanted to do something about the financial world in New York, but the visual counterpart of much financial activity is rather dreary. I had watched a documentary about the “open cry” system of trading in the commodities markets and from there I conceived the idea of painting the floor of the stock exchange as a brawl. It’s meant to be a somewhat humorous allegory of trading, which is largely a zero-sum game in which one person’s gain is another’s loss. Greed and fear rule. Here the spirit of Hogarth was particularly helpful. There’s also a direct quote from a Goya drawing in one pair of figures in the foreground.
Your manner is representational—if anything, an ever-so-slight throwback before the advent of abstract expressionism. But your images have a very timely feeling. How do you balance yesterday and today in your work?
The history of painting over the last century or so has been extremely rich. The advent of new forms, various kinds of abstraction, expressionism, surrealism, minimalism, conceptualism and so forth have been accompanied by continued production of representational paintings in a wide variety of styles. Many of the great painters of the era have been representational, including Bonnard, Matisse, Picasso, Kirchner, Nolde, Balthus, Hopper, Giacometti, Bacon, Spencer and Keifer. So to carry on doing representational paintings is scarcely anachronistic. My own painting language for this series is an amalgam of approaches I’ve gleaned from classical, impressionist and realist techniques. I’ve recombined it all in a way that allows me to render form, create light, keep the color alive and allow for lively, direct brushing. The Holy Grail for representational painters is to keep all these elements in play.
The work is both serious and comic. This too is a balancing act. I’m thinking of Continuing Ed. What was the impetus for this painting?
Comedy and painting have an uneasy relationship. The problem with comedy that stems from jokes, upheavals or surprises is that it is rather short-lived. Painting as a form is contemplative; the viewer appreciates the work over time. Jokes will quickly become stale. The kind of humor that does work is one that comes from insight and revelation about human activity. The Rowlandson drawing of people tumbling down the stairs of the Royal Academy will still have us smiling on the umpteenth viewing because his observation of human behavior is so true even at this outlandish moment. My painting “Continuing Ed” is based on my many years of teaching continuing education classes at SVA. It’s one of the richest and most enjoyable parts of my life, where I meet people of all ages, races, levels of wealth, backgrounds and experience. Classes will include beginners and professionals, gifted amateurs and people whose presence there will always remain mysterious. The humor in the painting is various. Firstly there is the variety of exaggerated poses as the students apply themselves to the task of painting. Then there is the fact that the model is wearing a distinctive red hat which everyone is getting rather wrong. And then there are various narrative moments like the girl having a meltdown in the foreground, her face buried in her hands, while another girl is chatting on her cellphone. In all, it’s a gentle humor I think, and one very much based on affection for my many students over the years.
What, ultimately, is your goal with this series? What is the mark that you want the paintings to leave?
My primary hope is that viewers will enjoy and relish the paintings, that they will recognize their own world in the one I’ve presented and appreciate afresh the wealth of life and visual splendor of this remarkable city. As for “making a mark”—I will leave that to the vagaries of history.
Print’s Regional Design Annual 2015: Enter Today!
The deadline for the 2015 Regional Design Annual is almost here! Don’t miss your chance to have your work reviewed by the best minds in design today and to be spotlighted in our most popular issue of the year—the industry’s most prestigious and well-respected annual.