2015 Interview with John Alexander Parks

By Ruth Janowitz








Ruth Janowitz: We last talked some fifteen years ago.  A lot has happened since then.  You took up finger painting for a few years.

John Parks:  The finger painting was a surprise to me.  I had a revelation late one night.  I suddenly felt that putting paint on with my hands would have to be the most authentic, direct way of painting.  How could it not be the most visceral, the most communicative means of making an image?

RJ. The paintings are actually surprisingly delicate.

JP. I thought that the pictures would be more expressionist in nature just because of the handling.  You can never be exactly quite sure where you are going to put a mark when there’s a mound of paint on the tip of your finger. And then the way the mark behaves is very different from a brush mark.  It’s more of a smear.  But when I started painting I discovered that I could get this very delicate touch, making a lot of short dabs and not pressing too hard.  And then various quirks would come into the drawing because of the loss of some control of placement.  I could keep them or take them out.  So the process became a very lively dialogue between paint and image.

John A. Parks

"Fording the Stream." 2004. Finger Painting. Oil on Linen. 10" x 18"

RJ. The first paintings seemed to be English tropes – hunting scenes, steam trains, guardsmen.

JP.  Yes – I used the technique to explore some English stereotypes.  The hunting scenes were particularly interesting.  It turned out that the iconography of hunting painting was much more like a liturgical cycle than I ever imagined.  Traditionally these pictures concentrate on various points of the hunt and interpretations are riffs on that tradition.  Then there is a history of more comical hunting images – parsons falling off horses and so on.

RJ.  And the steam trains were just another part of British tradition?

JP. Yes – they form part of the same absurd nostalgia that I’ve been dealing with on and off for years. Like most nations the Brits have a notion of some sort of golden past.  There are still a lot of branch lines in the hands of private associations who maintain the stations and keep the steam trains running.  It’s a fantasy. It mostly takes place out in the countryside.  My own recollection of steam travel as a boy was that it was filthy.  Soot and grime everywhere.

John A. Parks

"Train and Castle" 2004. Finger Painting OIl on Canvas. 8" x 10"

RJ. You showed the paintings at Allan Stone Gallery in 2005.

JP. It was the last show I did with Allan.  He came out to the studio and loved the paintings.  He was far from well at the time and it was really lovely that he enjoyed the pictures.

RJ.  You didn’t show in New York again until 2012

JP.  I did a big, almost retrospective, exhibition up at the arts center in Manchester Vermont in 2008 which was a great experience.  In New York things were difficult.  Allan Stone died in 2006 and the gallery went through many changes before eventually closing.  I also worked on a film for about a year.

RJ. Yes – “The Progress of Love.”  Tell me about that.

JP. It’s a documentary movie about romantic love.  It’s built around the series of paintings by Fragonard of the same title.  Women of various ages talk about their romantic lives while an evolutionary scientist offers his perspective on the forces underlying human behavior in the romantic sphere.

RJ.  This seems a big departure from your own interests as a painter.

JP.  I suppose I have always felt very interested in a lot of things about life and of course romance and sex and so on are a big part of life.   I’d been reading a lot about evolutionary psychology and it struck me that the kinds of patterns of behavior I was reading about were particularly apparent in paintings of the rococo era where you get a depiction of this formalized progression of a romance.  But then when I started making the film the material in the interviews was so very rich and varied that it seemed to make a mockery of the idea of codifying and nailing down human behavior.   The lives of the people in the film were much richer than any theory could predict or contain.

RJ.  In 2012 you mounted an exhibition in New York of finger paintings concerning your childhood in England.

John A. Parks "Hide and Seek." 2012. OIl/Linen 20 x 32

"Hide and Seek" 2012. Oil on Linen. Finger Painting. 20" x 32"

JP.  Yes.  For a long time I had been thinking about painting from memory.  In part because I had tried writing a memoir about my childhood and found that I had very strong visual impressions.  I began to paint what I thought were key scenes but as soon as I began work I found that my visual memories were less robust than I thought.   So in doing the paintings I actually reconstructed scenes from an amalgam of various memories.  For instance my brother and I were always going to the local swimming baths wherever we lived.  And usually these were broken down, over-chlorinated decaying facilities packed with kids doing dangerous and crazy things.  So I did a painting that tries to recreate that experience even though it can’t be an actual rendition of what I saw.

RJ. The point of view in many of the paintings seems much higher than that of a child.

JP. Yes – it was curious that I found my memories were often pictured from a high viewpoint, higher than that of an adult.  I then read that this is common.  Obviously we reconstruct a vantage point that gives us an overview.  We are trying to understand the whole event I suppose.

RJ.  You included a playground scene, a gardening scene, a game of hide and seek, a maypole dance and so on.   Did you feel you covered everything?

JP. Not at all.  I chose various key scenes that I thought would be visually interesting and which allowed me to go back and try and make sense of what happened.  I was surprised, in a way, at how benign the feeling was throughout most of the paintings.  Because my recollection of childhood is not entirely happy.

RJ.  The exhibition got considerable attention.  Your brother, the writer Tim Parks, wrote a big piece for the New York Review of Books blog and then Roberta Smith wrote a glowing review in the New York Times. There was other coverage too.

JP.  The attention was very gratifying.  The piece in the Times was a particular surprise.  I was very touched and moved that a critic of Roberta Smith’s caliber thought so much of the paintings.

RJ.  After the show you changed direction again and began painting pictures of New York with the brush.

JP. I had been working on the childhood paintings for about two years and I felt I had done enough with it.  The paintings of New York grew out of a conversation I had with my dealer, Thomas Jaeckel.  He was asking me why, having lived in New York for so long, I didn’t tackle it in painting.   Although I did do one or two topographical paintings of New York early on, I’d avoided it for years.  I felt that I wasn’t native to the place and I worried about getting it wrong.  But I think what Thomas was saying was that I wasn’t dealing with my present life, that my interest in British nostalgia and my childhood might involve some sort of avoidance.  At least that’s how I began to think about it.  So I began thinking about New York and my experience of it over many years. Gradually I realized I would be able to paint it after all.

RJ.  You began doing finger paintings of crowds.

JP.  Yes.  It seemed right from the start that I’d have to paint both the people and the place.  And in New York there are always a lot of people.  Everything is a crowd.  But I soon realized that I would have to go back to the brush.  I wanted a bigger scale and the finger technique is only really interesting on a modest scale.  Besides I was getting tired of having my hands covered in oil paint.

John A. Parks. "Girls, 14th St.  Homage to Isabel Bishop" 2013. OIl on Linen. 30 x 42"

"Girls 14th St. (Homage to Isabel Bishop)" 2013. Oil on Linen. 30" x 42"

RJ.  What are the challenges of painting New York?

JP.  It’s simply a monster.  The life, mobs, buildings, movement, noise, scale, extension, multiplicity and sheer vibrancy are really beyond the grasp of any artist in any medium.  It cannot actually be painted.  I was fascinated by people who’d tried.  In particular some of the earlier George Bellows paintings and many pictures by John Sloan seemed the best kind of enterprise in tackling New York.  They actually took it on.

RJ.  That was the so-called Ashcan school.  Weren’t most of those painters trained as illustrators?

JP. Yes. Sloan, Bellows, Shin and the rest began as newspaper illustrators, capturing quick sketches for the Philadelphia press.  But they were also wonderful paint handlers with a remarkably lively feel for surface and color.   There are also quite good paintings of New York from the twenties and thirties; Isobel Bishop, Paul Cadmus, Reginald Marsh and so on.   Obviously the super realists, particularly Richard Estes, did some paintings of the place, but those seem more about a certain attitude in painting than about the life of a city.

RJ.  Your paintings also seem to hark back to earlier paintings of crowds.

JP.  I looked at Breughel and then at various English painters, particularly Hogarth and Rowlandson.  I was interested in the way that crowds or large groups of people were orchestrated in their work so that the viewer can understand what is going on.  In going out and photographing crowds and sketching in New York I quickly discovered that mostly they can be rather dull.  When I was painting the line at the Shake Shack in Madison Square I went down and did a lot of sketches and took photographs and the most impressive thing was how boring the people are for most of the time.  But then there are brief moments when they do things that are fascinating, things that tell you a lot about how they are feeling and what they are up to.

RJ.  So the people in the crowds are all reassembled?

JP. Yes.  Every figure has been developed and drawn either from life or from photography or video.  I then assembled the painting and tried to work as much as possible from my drawings.  I was anxious to avoid any kind of photo look to the work.

John A. Parks. "Union Square" 2013. OIl on Linen. 32" x 44"

"Union Square" 2013. Oil on LInen. 32" x 44"

RJ.  You’ve also leaned a lot of the buildings or introduced irregular space into the work.  It’s similar to your “Havoc” pictures of London back in the eighties.

JP.  I wanted to create a certain life and flexibility in the space and setting.  Somehow you always experience New York as movement.  It’s very much a living and breathing place and it’s a setting for so many very crazy things.  I think I’m trying to impart that with the way I’m moving the buildings and space around.  Recreating a sense of what it’s like to be there, in New York.