Essay for Exhibition Catalogue
532 Gallery Thomas Jaeckel
A Painted Childhood
By Tim Parks
To go right back to the beginning, where it all began, without the aid of photographs, or any external support, visual or textual, without even the aid of the paintbrush and a lifetime’s training in teasing out the nuanced textures of flesh and foliage, to dip one’s fingers in color and put directly on the canvas how it was, or rather, today’s impression of what it must have been, this is the task John Parks, my dear brother, appears to have set himself in this extraordinary series of paintings.
Immediately one is struck by the contrast between staid, quiet very British settings, institutional or idyllic –school and swimming pool, seaside and gardens - and the manic dynamism of infant life, colorful, joyous and cruel. There is scarcely any individuality here, each child is a color, a gesture, a wild movement; at the same time we have an intense awareness of gender, of girls and boys, of society’s imposition of skirts and pants, pinks and blues; “Boys and Girls” has couples paired and tussling in blissfully ignorant anticipation of affections and catastrophes to come; “Maypole” is a whirl of pink femininity tangling colored ribbons while two boys look on, unusually motionless, evidently tense and possibly perturbed by this rosy but very strenuous apparition. In “Hide and Seek”, “Pool”, “Cycling”, and “Tag” a mad collective energy of competition and conflict is precariously channeled into organized games that are always on the edge of mayhem.
These are noisy paintings. We can hear the shouts and cries. The extravagant vitality of open mouths, flung limbs and twisted trunks suggests the child’s impatience with clothes, constraints, and confined spaces, his or her essentially animal life. Never have little dogs seemed so at home in paintings as scurrying here between the racing legs of this remembered infancy.
Racing legs. One hesitates to introduce a note of biography, but it makes no sense not to remind the viewer that my brother went through an experience that would make racing around difficult for some long time. Struck by polio aged four, he was left with a magnificent limp, and though he always threw himself into the fray with energy – I remember bold strokes with the cricket bat - he would never be as fast and free as the others. So it’s perhaps not surprising that so many of the pictures focus on the pleasure of wild movement, the child’s total absorption in the body flung into action. I have also wondered if the experience hasn’t influenced the curious point of view in these paintings; we feel close to the action, but are we actually in it? Again and again as I gaze at these pictures I feel I am being invited to find what is my place in each of these excited groups, the way you look at old school photos and struggle a little to recognize which child is you. Perhaps you are not going to find yourself at all. The children seem so absorbed in themselves, their groups so self sufficient and self contained, unaware of and uninterested in everything outside their magic circle. But perhaps this is the distance of age.
Let’s try to pin down the act of memory John is making here. He was born in Leeds, in England’s north east. His father, our father, was a clergyman and as such obliged, at least at the beginning of his career, to move around every few years. So the family went to Manchester, where John caught polio, then again to Blackpool, on the north-west coast, in the hope that after the filthy metropolis the bracing sea breezes might have a positive effect on his health. John was here from seven to twelve before the family moved definitively to London. He has never revisited Blackpool. Aged 24 he departed for the USA where he has lived ever since. These children playing, then - yelling and fighting and dancing and swimming – are playing in John’s mind and very likely have been playing there for decades, their intensity suggests the importance that physical action might have to someone whose health had been profoundly threatened. No sooner do we arrive at this reflection than we’re struck by the complete absence of any sentimentality or melancholy in this act of evocation; these are not images of longing or regret, but rather of intense and fascinated curiosity: what was this mad experience we call childhood? Might we perhaps recover it, or at least explore it, by dipping our fingers in color the way tiny children do?
Color and its application are crucial. No one color is particularly intense; rather we have soft blues and purples, pinks and greens, a softness complemented by that absence of sharp definition inevitable in finger-painting. Together, these choices create a sense of distance that, combined with the theme of childhood, could all too easily have given way to the mawkish and saccharine. But the lively juxtaposition of the colors, and the strenuous movement of the figures, or rather the use of color to create movement, as in the little girls’ raid on the candy store in “Sweet Shop”, create quite a different mood. It’s not nostalgia we have here, but celebration; the very liveliness of the paintings had cancelled any sense of loss. These pictures are fun, now; thinking of whatever it was going on, then.
Inevitably, one tries to place these pictures in the trajectory of John’s work. The long series of garden paintings, at once so lush and wry, spaces so desirable you always felt they must be threatened by some danger just outside the frame, was followed by the group that John referred to as Havoc; here danger was made manifest as all the pompous monuments of Britishness, from the statue of Joshua Reynolds outside the Royal Academy to Piccadilly Circus, the double-decker bus and the red jacketed guards at Buckingham palace, fell victim to some terrible distorting energy, some painterly upheaval that accentuated both their monstrosity and their charm.
In their different ways, then, both those series of paintings were galvanized by the opposing energies of constraint and vitality, conjuring places of refuge and danger, repose and drama. Now the childhood pictures offer an ingenious remix of the same tensions. Many of the locations are not dissimilar from those earlier gardens, but here they are being asked to contain the havoc of playing children. Meantime the pressures, positive and negative, of British customs are everywhere evident; the school buildings, the children’s uniforms, the color-coding for male and female, the ubiquitous flower beds. Beyond the comedy and the sheer visual pleasure, all kinds of anthropological observations urge us to remember how completely our infancy was fashioned by institutions that remained quite indifferent to all our shouts and strife. Quieter than the other paintings, “Train Set” is a fantasy evocation of the big table in our boys’ bedroom that mixed an electric train set with war games and models of those planes the British were convinced had won the Second War for them. Like all kids we played at killing and being killed and though the terrifying conflict was absolutely safe for us we claimed a borrowed glory from the heroism of our parents’ generation. Unable to compete squarely in the running and jumping, when the playground was reduced to a board game, John was always the fiercest of competitors.
Boards, maps, paintings. The overlap and the distance between map and territory, between two dimensions and three, a painting and its original subject, for example, might be another way of framing the tension between a safe, withdrawn contemplation of the world and a more perilous engagement with it. So alongside the childhood series, John has included three aerial views of London that contrive to combine both map and territory. Seen from a distance we have a beautifully controlled and elegant recall of those mappish scheme of central London we know so well, a lively pattering of streets and felicitously distributed red buses with neat jigsaw pieces of river, park and palace. All is control and possession. But as we move up close we realise that this is not an ordinary two-dimensional street plan, but a map come alive, a painting of stuff happening; not perhaps the frenetic children at play, but all kinds of curiosities and distortions of perspective that remind us that with any real involvement we will quickly lose our grip.
In “Cycling”, the racing boys on their bikes are far too large against the backdrop of terrace houses behind. In “Sweet Shop” the girls are far too small in proportion to the counter. In “The City of London” a bus outside St Pauls seems to dive down a hill to the right while the buildings across the street tilt on a slope to the left. Still and beautiful as they may seem, nothing is stable in John’s paintings, and memory always a joyful struggle to retrieve or create just a moment of clear vision from the furious flux.
Tim Parks is the author of “Medici Money: Banking Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth-Century Florence.” He has published 14 novels including “Europa,” which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1997.