Leslie Parke, The Per Contra Interview by Miriam N. Kotzin
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MK: And the scale makes each work a big commitment. What, for you, precedes the start of a painting or a series?
LP: I think I am a bit like those polar bear swimmers, who cut through the ice and jump into the water. When I start a painting, I jump right in. No preliminary sketches, no doing it on a smaller scale to see if it will work as a painting, I just start. That being said, I do take hundreds and hundreds of slides of my subject. And again, I go about my paintings in two ways.
One way is that I take many slides of something and then put them into a carousel and flip through them until something strikes me. I will have a visceral response to it, and a feeling of how big it should be and how it should be cropped. Once I make these adjustments I start.
The other way I work, is that I get an image in my head of a painting and I either create or seek out that image in the world. Usually constructing it rather than finding it.
I prefer working large. I find that when I try to work smaller the paintings just become more dense, and for me, more difficult to paint.
MK: Your comment about your landscapes being “real places with the light and atmosphere of a particular day” leads me to ask about how you record that light and atmosphere.
Do you keep a sketchbook? A journal?
How do you use photography in your work?
LP: Photography is an integral part of my work. There’s an ongoing dialog between my photos and my paintings. I’ll photograph a subject extensively, sometimes over years. Then, when I paint the subject I find myself thinking – I wish I had this or that. So, then I go back to photographing with that in mind. But that might entail waiting from an ice storm one year to an ice storm the next.
Sometimes my worst photos make the best paintings. And the photos are rarely interesting as photos – that to me is a whole different aesthetic. What you get is a painter thinking with a camera in front of their eyes. It is almost never about the subject matter and almost always about the light.
MK: Do you use Photoshop? If so, how? Manipulation of colors? Collaging? Enlarging?
LP: I wish I knew how to use Photoshop. I think that it would be enormously useful. One day I will conquer that learning curve. I did have a very interesting experience with photographing for my paintings. I was ringside, taking photos for my boxing series. I had two cameras, each with a different lens and I was photographing as fast as I could and then in the middle of this process I looked through my camera and saw an image that appeared to be the painting already painted. I felt as though I had all the time in the world to look at every part of the photo. Time had literally stopped.
I don’t know what that was, but a professional photographer asked me what it felt like when I took photos and I told him about this experience. He just nodded.
MK: Do you draw on your canvas before you paint? Use underpainting?
LP: I prefer to work from a flat image to a flat image – either photograph to painting or slide projection to painting. The reason for that, I believe, is that I do not have very good depth perception. I discovered this while parking my car. Every day at the studio I pulled the nose of my car into the building next to everyone else’s cars. When I got out I could see that my car stuck out two feet from the others. Every day the same thing. It suddenly dawned on me that the building must appear closer to me than it does to these other drivers.
Using projection became important to me for another reason. I liked having the light appear to be emanating from inside the canvas, rather than being projected onto the canvas.
I have found lately that I prefer to work on a dark ground, but I don’t want the light areas of the painting to be dulled by a dark background so I overlay those areas with a white gesso.
Underpainting for Cans.
42" x 60"
oil on linen, 2010
MK: How did you come to paint the series of boxers?
LP: As a kid I was a huge fan of boxing. Then while I was working as a sound person for a documentary filmmaker we did a film on Cus d’Amato’s gym in Catskill, New York when Mike Tyson was training there as a teenager. We spent a year and a half filming at the gym. Over that time, my knowledge of the sport became pretty intimate. Of course, I have to throw in that I also loved the boxing paintings of Bellows and Eakins.
But I didn’t do the boxing paintings then. It wasn’t until years later while watching a fight on TV in France I saw a white boxer with a magenta-colored cut over his piercing green eyes that I thought – that would make a great painting. I took a picture of the TV and painted that boxer. It made me decide that when I got back to the States I would ask Tyson’s first trainer, Teddy Atlas, if I could photograph his fighters at the gym. He said they were having a big fight in Atlantic City and I should come to that. He got me a press pass and I was able to photograph that night of fights and another in Madison Square Garden ringside.
MK: I was looking at your earlier still life work, the use of crystal in those paintings, the concern with light in those. Would say a few words about how you came to make the paintings of your grandfather’s china? The china and crystal?
LP: The paintings of my Grandfather’s china occurred at the same time that I was painting the recycled cans. Things that were round and shiny were on my mind. Each winter a friend of mine and I throw a big party, and with tongue in cheek, celebrate our WASP heritage by bringing out our grandparent’s china and crystal. It was after this party and before I put the dishes away that I got the idea to handle the porcelain the way I was handling the cans – a big pile of junk – or artistically speaking – a complex all-over composition. I always try to photograph these still lifes with back lighting, so that the light can penetrate the items. I wanted the light to reflect off the gold, but to also pour through the porcelain.
41 ½" x 48"
oil on linen, 2010
Well, needless-to-say, the crystal had not been put away either. So I wanted to see how complex I could make a painting and still make it readable.
Crystal and Porcelain
46" x 48"
oil on linen, 2010.
MK: Do you see this new work as a shift in emphasis, or a new direction?
LP: The shift in my work started when I went to Giverny. I had just finished all the “appropriation” paintings and now I found myself living inside of one of Monet’s paintings. So, it was there that the paradigm shift occurred. But it was a very confusing time for me. I did not consider myself a landscape painter or a painter of nature. As far as I was concerned, my paintings were about paintings. I felt as though I had entered the wilderness and the only way out was through. So, I spent quite a few years painting whatever grabbed me. I painted and painted and painted and waited to see what was going to rise to the surface and become important to me.
What I found was that I was interested in transparency, translucency, and reflected light; representational paintings that appear abstract; paintings with art historical references and paintings with great paint handling. Subject matter is interesting to me only in how it facilitates these qualities, which is why I think that my paintings of trees, china and recycled cans are really about the same thing.
Almond Tree – Biot
60" x 70"
oil on canvas, 2008
48" x 48"
oil on linen, 2010
36" x 58"
oil on linen, 2010.
MK: You’ve mentioned that the series called Landfill was inspired by your seeing such artists as Judd, Harnett, Lichtenstein and Pollock in the setting of a recycling plant.
Would you tell our readers a bit about your experience in Sasebo, Japan?
LP: The final breakthrough came for me in two parts. I was standing in a parking lot in the south of France when I saw an almond tree in bloom that looked just like a Jackson Pollock painting. That became Almond Tree – Biot. Then a few weeks later while walking near a friend’s house in Sasebo, Japan, I passed the recycling center. In it they were moving bales of recycled paper to prepare them for transport.
Japanese Recycling Center, Sasebo, Japan
Bale of Recycled Paper
The image of their surface struck me like a Harnett trompe l’oeil painting, and the structure of the bales made me think of Don Judd’s boxes.
You see, I didn’t see the bales as garbage, but as a comment on art history, part of the continuum of image making. For me it carried everything from Lichtenstein’s cartoon paintings, to Jackson Pollock’s all-over composition.
Recycled Paper – Sasebo, Japan
58" x 48"
oil on linen, 2008
Sometime later, on a trip to Maine I took the recyclables to the dump and nearly leaped from the car when I saw bales of crushed cans. Again there was the possibility of trompe l’oeil imagery, but here with the crushed metal and shiny lids a new element was introduced – light and the reflection of the surrounding onto the surface of the cans.
Not From Concentrate
40" x 60"
oil on linen, 2010
Circles, folds and bands were added to the vocabulary. So were references to Jasper John’s Savarin coffee can and John Chamberlain’s sculpture.
I guess everyone sees the world through a filter. Mine happens to be an art historical one.
MK: You’ve said about landscape, “For me, the beauty of a landscape painting is its power to situate the viewer in the middle of nature providing a sensation of light, wind, water, and fog. Vistas and panoramas put the landscape at a distance. I prefer to crop the view to maximize the abstract quality of the composition and place the viewer inside the landscape.”
This would create a kind of intimacy—which makes me think of your creation of a personal space, over time, with some paintings of Bonnard. Would you share a bit of that with our readers? How did you get started? Did you know when you began how far you would take the project, painting rugs and furniture?
LP: The Bonnard Project started innocently enough. After returning from a retrospective of Bonnard’s paintings at MOMA I thought I would like to take some of the decorative elements in his paintings and put them on the wall of my bedroom. I live in an apartment and my bedroom had plaster walls that were falling down and I figured no one would care if I painted them. But I found that I didn’t like just taking these decorative elements, instead I wanted his paintings blown up to cover the walls, but I removed the people in the paintings so I could be the person in the painting.
When I finished the walls, nothing in the room looked right. All the furniture stuck out, so I began by painting an old cherry chest with Bonnard, then the side table, then the lamps and the lampshades. Then I found pieces of furniture that matched the ones in the painting and I painted them and put them into the room. Then I found bedding that went with the paintings and finally I hooked several rugs with Bonnard images. But once I finished that room, the rest of the house didn’t make sense.
Dresser and rug.
So, I put another mural in the living room, but then the room seemed out of balance, so I added one on the other side of the room. And then when I felt like I needed a porch, but would not be able to build one, I painted one on a third wall in the living room. It became evident that it was most delightful to see a mural peeking out from behind a door, so I added another in the kitchen. In the living room I continued to find furniture that matched the painting, and what didn’t match, I painted with other paintings.
I was about to throw out an old rattan rug, but then thought that it would make a perfect surface for another Bonnard. My latest edition is a set of plates also covered with Bonnard.
In my entryway I diverged and put in Caillebotte’s “ Paris Street-Rainy Day”. At night, when you look in the window from outside, it feels as though you are really looking out onto a street in Paris. It sort of announces that you are entering a parallel universe.
MK: That sounds delightful. Thank you for letting us see this aspect of your work, too.