An Interview with John Alexander Parks
By Ruth Janowitz
RJ. You have a marvelous studio here.
JP. I'm very lucky. I built this space about fourteen years ago and put in more skylights and windows than I should really. I had lived in Manhattan for twelve years in a gloomy cavern on West End Avenue. When I moved out to Dutchess County all I could think about was daylight. Now I almost have too much.
RJ. You grew up in England?
JP. Yes. My father was a Church of England clergyman. I had a very religious upbringing - bible study over breakfast, endless prayer meetings in the house and a life of church and choir. It has left me a committed aetheist.
RJ. Do you think it has affected your work?
JP. It must have. But exactly how is hard to tell. I think that leaving the religion probably left me with a sense of loss of meaning. Perhaps I'm driven to push the painting so much because I feel that lack.
RJ. You also had polio as a child.
JP. I came down with it when I was four in one of the last big epidemics before the Salk Vaccine took hold. I very nearly died apparently and my left leg is wrecked. Fortunately I escaped the iron lung or wheelchair. I have no idea how it has affected my painting. I suppose as a child I always felt somewhat different and obviously slightly less adequate than the kids who could run around. Perhaps I felt I had something to prove. But I did fine.
To tell the truth I don't think much about it these days - after forty-eight years I'm used to limping.
RJ. What made you want to become a painter?
JP. I think I first got excited about painting when I came across an old astronomy book in my father's study. He had his walls lined with old volumes - mostly religious tracts and concordances. Somehow this book had slipped in and it had a frontespiecce which showed a Tintoretto painting - "The Origin of the Milky Way". It was so strange and sensual - sort of sexual really even for an eight year old - it was a glimpse into another world, strange, inviting and oddly dangerous.
RJ. You've been painting now for twenty-five years or more and your work has undergone a lot of changes. Back in the late seventies you were working on more or less photoreal work.
JP. I finished my graduate work at the Royal College of Art in London in 1976. At the time I was very interested in some of the new realist work coming out of the United States. I had seen Estes and Malcolm Morley - what they were doing was already famous. And then I saw a show of Robert Cottingham gouaches. I was very attracted to the small scale and lavish color and I began to try some myself. Some of the first ones have some surrealist touches but soon I was doing straightforward views of London high streets.
RJ. You painted a lot of the London views while you were living in New York.
JP. Yes. I moved to New York in late 1976 but I was still very taken with the idea of painting all the locales I had grown up around as a teenager. Outer London has wonderful spaces and an amazing mix of architecture. Nobody had ever bothered trying to paint it. It occupied me for quite some time.
RJ. The early paintings seem very much straightforward realist pictures except that there is this arresting sense of nostalgia - almost a slight wistfulness that creeps in.
JP. I think part of the intensity I got in those paintings was because I was three thousand miles away from the subject. I'd go back to London to take photos and do sketches and then I'd spend months locked up in New York doing the paintings. It's a kind of homesickness in paint.
RJ. Sometime around 1982 the work began to change.
JP. Yes. It got softer - or rather it got more deliberately romantic. I began to get interested in man-made landscapes other than the street - in particular I began to be intrigued by gardening - not just the way gardens look but the whole enterprise. In England almost everybody has a garden, even if it's just a patch in front of the house. And everybody is busy trying to make their own little corner of paradise. And then you have this whole history of gardening on a grand scale where the wealthy tried to make very large corners of England into some sort of heaven. Vast sums of money have been spent over the last three or four centuries to create these places. Of course the notion of what paradise ought to look like keeps changing a bit but the basic drive remains intact. Even more remarkable is that some of the grandest gardens are now public parks. You can stroll off the street in London into places that are completely mind blowing. The walled garden at Brockwell Park, for instance, is right in the heart of Brixton.
RJ. Your paintings seem to relish the romance of these places.
JP. I wanted the painting to join the game. I was getting rather tired of that hands-off realist stance. I didn't want my paintings to be quite as cool. Besides it's all kinds of fun painting plants and foliage - I let a little more warmth and passion creep in.
RJ. Even so the best of the paintings, like "Snowshill" for instance, still have a kind of wistful quietness. And early review of your work in Arts Magazine describes it as 'elegaic'.
JP. Maybe being abroad still helped. Paradise is something we can't ever really have so I suppose it's proper to be wistful about it.
RJ. You also stopped painting in gouache about that time.
JP. I had always painted in oil as well as gouache. But I found that the oil was giving more softness and luxury. Besides I was suspicious about gouache. As a watercolor it is prone to fading unless it is well looked after. Most of my work was in the hands of collectors and I had no idea how it was being displayed.
RJ. You had an exhibition at the Allan Stone Gallery in 1982 which was praised by John Russell in the New York Times. He called you "a true poet in paint."
JP. He was very kind. He liked my small pictures of suburban London with train tracks running behind houses and washing hanging out on lines. He didn't review my next show.
RJ. That was in 1984 also at Allan Stone. The paintings were slightly different.
JP. By that time I had really got going on the gardens. Along the way I began to do some pictures which shifted the color a little away from natural. I was interested by the kind of non-natural color that Monet experimented with later on - a kind of luxury of color for its own sake. And at the same time I was intrigued by Maxfield Parrish.
RJ. So a painting like "Castle" really isn't a painting of a real place at all?
JP. Not quite. It's based a on a real garden but the castle is added from elsewhere and the color is built up over an ultramarine blue underpainting. I'm not sure now if it was the best move for my work but it did make for some lavish color.
RJ. Later you went back to more natural color.
JP. I felt that in the end it was stronger to look at the world and elicit truths and insights from it rather than impose this over-the-top color.
RJ. Your work was already characterized by a willingness to take chances and try new things. Many painters had success by continuing to produce realist work.
JP. I felt, and I still feel, that I'm looking for something in the painting which I never quite get. The idea of repeating myself endlessly simply to put out a consistent product is just depressing. It's hard enough to be a painter and to go into a studio every day for all kinds of hours. It has to be an adventure otherwise it just isn't worth doing.
RJ. About this time, in the mid-eighties, you began to work in two styles at once.
JP. Yes. I'd always toyed wiith the idea of doing some larger and more open painting. After the exhibition in 1984 I began doing some enormous charcoal drawings of London buildings collapsing. I was excited at the time by what Malcolm Morley was doing. There is also some influence from Wayne Thiebaud whose work I used to see all the time at Allan Stone.
RJ. These paintings you called the "Havoc" series. Why was that?
JP. I think I felt as though I was running amok. I used the same color and tonal setups I had used in the realist painting only I started kicking the actual furniture of the view around. London started dancing. It was a lot of fun to paint like that.
RJ. You were escaping the discipline of the realist's craft.
JP. In a way. But I was also discovering the pleasure of remaking the form in new ways. And then there is this literal preposterousness that came in - a kind of humor.
RJ. Humor and painting don't often go together.
JP. The problem with humor is that it can wear off. A joke relies on surprise but a painting stays around for years and even centuries. Enjoying painting is generally a more contemplative act so there has to be more than a cheap joke to give it staying power.
RJ. How did it feel to have two visions up and running at once?
JP. It took me a while to feel comfortable. At first I thought I would abandon the small paintings. But then I realized that they meant a great deal to me and that I still wanted to paint them. I found that when I worked in both styles together they both improved. The picked up energy from each other.
RJ. You showed the large paintings in 1987 at Allan Stone.
JP. It was a terrific show. We sold some of the paintings and got a great response.
RJ. In the early nineties you showed with Coe Kerr Gallery.
JP. They were a wonderful group of people on Madison Avenue. I still regret that they decided to wind up the business. The space was perfect for my small paintings.
RJ. You not only showed garden paintings but also travel pictures.
JP. I had travelled quite a bit in Greece and Italy. And of course a lot of the romance of English gardens is actually a romance about the classical world. English gardens are full of faux Greek temples and Roman sculptures. I did several paintings based on my travels.
RJ. Generally I take it that you work from photographs.
JP. Almost exclusively although I sometimes sketch on the spot. It is not actually possible to paint like this on location - the sun moves around before you had a chance to get things nailed down. I take hundreds of photographs and then generally have to redraw them. I usually work from transparencies because the color is more true and you can see into the darks better. I spent many years in art school and I draw very fluently.
RJ. Meanwhile the big paintings changed too.
JP. Yes. In the mid-nineties I did a series of heads based on my son's toys. My thought was to invest these rather trite and cheaply sculpted objects with all the play of semi-expressionist painting. But the results were more fun than anything else.
RJ. And then you began to paint soldiers?
JP. I had already done one painting in the early nineties where I had two guardsmen embracing. It simply seemed like a funny idea at the time. I based the pose on Giotto's "Meeting at the Golden Gate". Then I found myself painting a group of soldiers tangoing in front of Horseguards Parade. In the late nineties I returned to the idea and began to mine it more. I became fascinated by the possibilities of gesture in dance - by the way that we can read sense and emotion in posture and movement and by the way these meanings have become stylized or you might say aesthetisized. I'm still working on these pictures - I'm not sure if I've got quite where I want to go with them.
RJ. That seems to be a continual state of mind.
JP. I suppose so. But I really think that with these paintings I can get somewhere grand.
RJ. I imagine that some people have complained that they seem to suggest that British Guardsmen are gay.
JP. Well obviously there is an irreverence of some kind. My own grandfather was in the Life Guards, a cavalry regiment, and stood guard in front of Buckingham Palace every day on a horse dressed silver armor and white plumed helmet. But I think that the uniformed figure is a strong symbol for everybody. It's the part of ourselves that is marshal, that obeys orders and does brave things under fire. These paintings undermine that part of the self and suggest an illicit sexual element. I'm not quite sure what it all means but it seems to be a seam worth mining. It calls into question the relationship between social roles and private behavior. I'm interested now in the idea that I can make paintings that speak more directly to our lives as social and political animals in a way that isn't polemical or boorish.
RJ. You have also been writing a lot in the last ten years.
JP. I have mostly written profiles of other artists for the art magazines. It's been extremely interesting and rewarding. I'm continually in awe of people who spend their lives hammering out their world on canvas and I'm always learning from them. Talking to them and attempting to explain clearly what they do and what they are about has also helped me to focus my thoughts about my own work.
RJ. You have also done quite a bit of illustration over the years.
JP. That started when I first came to New York. I was very broke and illustration back then was seen as a way a painter might supplement his income. These days it's a very much more competitive market. I was lucky, however, to get some really good work over the years. My very first job was a record cover for Glenn Gould, someone I very much admire, and I've done covers for New York Magazine and spreads for lots of others. I always found I learned something from each of these jobs and I enjoyed meeting the art directors and getting to see a bit of the New York publishing world.
RJ. And the small landscapes?
JP. I think I will always do them. I'm just doing two or three a year right now - they take a lot of time. It's like going back to a place I know forever and enjoying it one more time. There is a lot of escape involved and I think that's why people enjoy them. They are a kind of invitation to a better world, an invitation to dream. What could be better?
RJ. In some of the recent paintings like "Rapture" for instance, there is a sense that some of the quieter nuances of the landscapes are creeping into the soldier paintings.
JP. It might be. Perhaps I'm heading for synthesis at last. We shall see. That's what is exciting about painting - you never really know exactly what's going to happen next.