It’s always exciting to think about works of art or literature in relation to the person who made them, especially if you have some direct acquaintance with the artist. The usual order of events, of course, is that you grow familiar with the work and later meet the man or woman behind it, at an opening or a reading or some social event. What matters, then, is that the artist be on a par with the art, and for a serious admirer, disappointment is almost inevitable.
Things are quite different when you know the artist well before you see the work, and even more so when you actually grew up with him. Then what you’re looking for, when first you read his books or see his paintings, is confirmation; the artist’s creations must bear out your impression of this person who is so close to you. Complacently, you feel sure that they will and that you are going to understand them far better than any mere critic.
But no. I grew up the younger brother of a colorful rebel in a rather staid, very Puritan English family. My surprise, when I first saw John’s paintings years later, was to find the color stronger than ever but without a trace, so it seemed, of that rebellion. Always in awe of his audacity around our pious home, his adolescent willingness to provoke, I had expected protest, satire, aggressive criticism. What I found instead, looking through stacks of canvases in rented rooms in London and then New York, was an extraordinary intensity of wistful contemplation.
They were paintings of suburban London. It was a world John and I had shared in our teens: the terraced streets and windy intersections of Crouch End and Muswell Hill, Willesden and Brixton, places I supposed he despised. In paint, however, he had transformed them into landscapes of longing, spaces at once absolutely authentic in their clutter and decay, yet at the same time infinitely desirable—to the point of seeming unavailable. It was odd. On the one hand you had the impression of realism, but it was a realism lavished on such quiet and unassuming scenes—park benches and flower beds, trains rattling by sagging fences, pedestrians escaping from red buses—that you felt there was something absurd or even magical about it. The paintings were nostalgic and funny.
I was taken aback. I hadn’t seen or expected this in my brother at all. But obviously it was better this way. The paintings would have been dull if they had been merely an extension of that part of him that was important to me when we were both trying to free ourselves from a suffocatingly religious family. Years later, after I’d gotten used to his being a professional painter and having shows at Allan Stone’s gallery in New York, the old disrespect and provocation did surface in his work, but in a way I could never have imagined. He called these his “havoc paintings.” Perhaps impatient that not everybody had appreciated the quiet irony of all his townscapes and gardens, he now broke up those tranquil settings in grotesque earthquakes of upheaval. They weren’t quite the same settings; it was still London, but rather than the humbly inhabited suburbs, the focus was now on the preposterous monuments of the Victorian era. It was as though everything that expressed British pride, presumption, and pomposity had fallen victim to some painterly poltergeist.
In The Royal Academy (1986), the black statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds—a man emblematic of establishment art—is at once elegant, ominous, and precarious as he seems to lunge from a wobbly pedestal outside the Academy building that is itself noble and absurd, both threatened and threatening. Looking at these paintings of the Albert Hall, Parliament, and Big Ben you wondered: Is it all about to crumble—authority, tradition, wealth—or is London revealing itself for what it always was, monstrous, but monstrously attractive nevertheless? At one opening, contemplating a painted policeman who seemed to be falling over backwards into a vortex of leaning street facades, I realized that this blend of wry affection and repugnance must capture how John had come to feel about our family, and indeed the whole milieu of middle-class British life.
No interesting artistic vision stays still, if only because the energies involved are uneasily balanced, and then one grows old and life changes. In his mid-twenties John moved from London to New York, where he now teaches at the School of Visual Arts; we saw each other less often, and England became more distant for him, more manipulable perhaps, a territory of memory and metaphor. One bizarre series of paintings showed Buckingham Palace guardsmen who, far from stiff and rigid in their red uniforms and black beaver hats, were doing ballet in landscapes of snow, embracing in poses that were not at all soldierly. Another group of pictures depicted trains that seemed at once real and toy-like, crossing landscapes that again had something oneiric and modeled about them, yet were uncannily credible and fresh. You could never be sure how much the world was there, how much created by the mind.
Now John has a show of new paintings called “Paint and Memory” at the 532 Gallery in New York and, alas, I can’t be there to see it. It’s frustrating. Particularly because, incredibly to my mind, John has given up on the technique that had seemed his strongest point: the early paintings were all marvelously meticulous in their detail; working with the thinnest of brushes, John had developed an astonishing ability to build up the textures of foliage and brickwork. Sometimes it seemed as if only this maniacal attention and control was keeping danger at bay, keeping the world in its place. Now all of a sudden he has decided to throw that ability away and paint with his fingers.
It’s funny how hindsight reveals the sense of each new departure that artists we admire make, yet we can never predict what they’re going to do next. When they do change style abruptly we immediately feel anxious. I was convinced John had made a big mistake; it was as if a writer famous for his descriptive powers, an Updike or a Nicholson Baker, had all at once decided to drop English and write in some other language. I had to restrain myself from begging him to go back to doing what we had all grown to love, making art with the qualities that, in the end, were so easy to praise.
I can’t see these new paintings in their fleshy canvases, but over the last year or so images have been arriving in my email; inevitably I clicked on the attachments with concerned anticipation. I think critics often forget how much of our aesthetic pleasure comes from our knowledge of what an artist has already done, the excitement of trying to connect the new with the old and construct a meaningful trajectory. When we read a new Philip Roth, we engage with it quite differently from the way we do with a book by an author we don’t know.
John’s new works are paintings of children. But not children today. Children in Manchester and Blackpool in the 1950s. Not close-ups, not portraits, but children in action, in movement, in the world of our infancy before our father moved us south to London in the Sixties. And while most of the earlier paintings had been made only after many visits to the places depicted and with frequent reference to photographs, these images were evidently created entirely from memory with no external support at all. The photo has been chucked away along with the paintbrush; the fingers dip directly into paint and memory.
These are noisy paintings. The roughness of the surface comes across as loudness and movement. What were once quiet and very British settings—school and swimming pool, seaside and gardens—are now full of the manic dynamism of infant life. 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 spirit. Never have little dogs seemed so at home in paintings as they are here, scurrying between the racing legs of this remembered infancy.
Racing legs. How can I not remember, as I look at these pictures, that in early childhood my brother went through an experience that would make racing around difficult. Struck down by polio at age four, he would have to forego moving around independently for quite some time, and though later he always threw himself into the fray with energy, he would never be as fast and free as the others. So maybe it’s 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.
Perhaps that experience of illness also accounts for the curious point of view in these paintings; we feel close to the action, but are we actually in it? As I open each new attachment and look at a scene in a playground, or maypole dancing, or in a sweetshop, 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, and perhaps feel anxious that you are not going to find yourself at all. The children seem so absorbed in themselves, their magic circle so self-sufficient and self-contained that they are unaware of and uninterested in everything outside it.
This is the odd thing, then, about the work of someone you know so well. You bring to it a knowledge most ordinary viewers cannot. Train Set, for example, is a fantasy evocation of the big table in our shared boys’ bedroom, on which an electric train set mingled with war games and models of those planes the British were convinced had won World War II for them. My experience, looking at such a work, must be quite different from that someone who did not know our world; I am reminded again how much of aesthetics has to do with our own background and point of view.
On the other hand, with all my awareness of where these details came from, my recognition of an armchair, or a school facade, or a road junction, I am no nearer than anyone else to understanding the immensely complex processes whereby my brother’s mind and training and fingertips have transformed them into this set of paintings, each distinctive, but with their shared aura of frenetic vitality and solemnity. In fact, the closer you are to someone who does something creative, the more mysterious the phenomenon seems.
“Paint and Memory,” a show of new work by John Parks, is on view at 532 Gallery in New York through December 21, 2012.