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Leslie Parke, The Per Contra Interview by Miriam N. Kotzin


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MK:  When you were a child did you go to museums?  Pay attention to the art in your home?


LP:   When I was very young I used to pour over my parents’ two art books. One was Fifty Centuries of Art from the Metropolitan Museum, and the other was a survey of American art. What I felt when looking through those books was that I wanted to live inside a painting.


We lived just outside of New York City, and my mother took me to my first museum exhibition when I was nine or so. It was a retrospective of Turner at the Modern. I remember feeling when I walked through the rooms that I wanted to know everything about what I was seeing, but I wanted to get that information directly from the paintings. I was not one to read labels.


We did not have anything in our house that one would call art. Occasionally there was an exceptional object, but that came later, when my Grandfather died. A Lalique vase that I paint frequently came from him.


We did have a neighbor, however, whose house was full of art and extraordinary objects. We lived next door to the Zerns. Ed Zern wrote a column for the magazine Field and Stream, called “Exit Laughing.” In his house was very good African sculpture; furniture by Eames and other famous architect/designers; and paintings by Jimmy Ernst, Calder and Ben Shahn, all of whom were counted among his friends. I frequently hung out at their house. Allegedly I went there to water their plants, but I was there mostly to look at the art. From the beginning they treated me very seriously and would frequently question me about what I saw in the art. It was a blessing to be welcomed into this tribe so early in life.


MK:  When did you begin to make art?


LP:  I feel as though I first started making art when I made a hand print in clay in nursery school. It is my earliest memory. The next time I did something that was meaningful to me was when I drew copies of Renaissance paintings when I was home sick from school for several days. Even in the beginning, making art for me was a comment about other art.


I did not have a facility for making art. Execution was always a struggle. And I         was not really interested in the world around me. I was only interested in other art.


Every choice I made from a very early age was to put me in connection with that art. By the time I was ten I took lessons at the Museum of Modern Art, and a little later I studied with graduate students at the Metropolitan. Every free moment I had I wandered through the museums of New York.


MK: How did you decide to become an artist?  What influences shaped that decision?


LP: The decision to become an artist came so early, there was never a time that I didn’t think that I would be one.


Although my parents were not particularly artistic, they were handy. When I was a toddler, my father decided that he wanted to build two wooden sailboats. My mother told him that if he built them in the basement she would never see him, so she told him to build them in the living room. And this was in the suburbs of New York. These boats ended up being my play pens. I would sit in the hull and “help” my father build the boat. If you ask me – that’s making art. My love of paint came from my father and his working on these boats. There was two-part epoxy, copper paint, and paint with sand in it. My father painted the stripes on the waterline using masking tape a la Ken Noland. He never took care of his brushes and left them in a coffee can with turpentine. I was always fooling with these brushes to see if the bristles were still any good, or if they had dried out or become too bent. So, all that materiality was present. As well as, constructing things using weird materials – like fiberglass fabric, to fiberglass a dingy.

                                                     My father and I building a sailboat in the livingroom.


MK: You used shaped canvases as a support early on.  Why?  And why did you move away from them?


LP:  In the very beginning I made abstract paintings, and it was in the development of those abstract works that the first shaped canvases occurred. I got to a point where the abstract composition within these shaped canvases felt arbitrary. One was as good as another, but there was no moment where I felt I had come to the ultimate solution. At the same time I was looking at Matisse a lot, and I thought that I would like to add a passage from his painting, “The Moroccans” of the black floor with the white grid running through it. I liked that so much I added another element from the painting until ultimately I had reworked the entire painting onto the shaped canvas. This process took me about two years of working and reworking, the entire time saying to myself – you can’t do this, this is not a legitimate way to make a painting.

                                                     Shaped Moroccans

                                                     84” x 121”

                                                     oil on canvas, 1984


One of the ways that the shaped canvases worked with all of the “appropriation” paintings is that it created a dialog between the original work and how it was altered by the editing that occurred when it was incorporated onto the shaped canvas. With the Ingres series the curves of the shaped canvases, which were created through automatic drawing, continued the movement and lines that were in the original paintings. You could no longer read these paintings in the conventional way, where the composition is constructed in relation to the edge of the painting. Instead, your eye is set in motion and never gets to rest. It makes these paintings very disturbing to look at.

                                                     Panckouke, Rothschild and Moitessier

                                                     63" x 44"

                                                     oil on shaped canvas, 1990


I stopped using shaped canvases when I started to paint from life. The shaped canvases were in contrast to the rectangular canvas of the original paintings. When I started to interpret three-dimensional spaces the painting became less about what was containing the image. I will still use a shaped canvas if I think it adds a meaningful point to what is being painted.


MK:  The work on your website includes a number of series. Your imagery varies widely—from the series on boxers to flowers to china and crystal to landfill. 


What attracts you to working in series?  Are you considering a problem or question that you’re using the series to explore?   If so, what? 


LP:  My website has series of paintings going back thirty years. There is a linear development in the work that when seen altogether can seem eclectic. It might be easier for people if I removed everything that didn’t have to do with what I am painting right now. One theme that runs through the work is that I am usually in a toe-to-toe battle with some piece of art from the past.


In the early work I quote other artists directly: Matisse, Giotto and Ingres. With the figure paintings and the boxing paintings, I am responding to past art or making a nod to it, but using images from today. There was a long period, after I spent time as an artist in residence at the Claude Monet Foundation in Giverny, when I abandoned the direct art historical references and searched for what “my painting” would be. What I discovered in that process was that I was most interested in depicting light and painting things from the real world that verged on the abstract. The art historical references are still there, but are more oblique.


                                                     Hoar Frost

                                                     60" x 84"

                                                     oil on canvas, 2003


Almost every series of paintings I work on is in response to a question that is formed in doing the series that precedes it. For example, the Matisse series was all about how one read a painting differently that was on a shaped canvas. Matisse often structured his paintings around a window, so frequently in these paintings I used the window as an organizing motif. You end up reading the composition of the painting as it relates to the window  – bouncing from the shaped edge of the canvas to the frame of the window within the painting. In the Giotto series, it became all about how the shaped canvases related to a site-specific space – how it related to the architecture and space of an octagonal gallery at Williams College Museum. The shape of the canvases suggested movement and direction. It added to the narrative of the paintings.


       Installation view, Giotto series.


                     The Last Wall

                     18' x 24'

                     oil on shaped canvas, 1988


The Ingres paintings posed a different formal question. The shape of the canvases had a lot of the curves and movement of the drawing in the Ingres. But these paintings took an unexpected turn. You see, the curator of the Giotto exhibition hated it. Hated everything about the show, even down to how I lit it and placed the labels. This was pretty early in my career and I was devastated – and remained so for many years. But, in taking on the Ingres I was taking on her every criticism of the previous series – including how they were painted.  I purposefully put chance into my process. I made some automatic drawings – i.e., closing my eyes, meditating and then seeing where the pencil went. This is how I derived the shapes for the paintings. Then I played with reproductions of the Ingres paintings until something felt right – putting several Ingres together in one painting. In one of them an Odalisque appears to be sliced down the back and the other woman in the painting has her mouth cut away. Gee, what do you think that was about?


                                                     Rothschild and Bather II

                                                     23" x 18"

                                                     oil on linen, 1992


But sometimes chance is a big element in determining the direction of the work. So, for me it happens in one of two ways, either, I get an idea of something I want to pursue and then I construct all the visuals to support that idea and work my way through it. Or, I happen upon something, an image, say, and my response to that leads to a series.


For example, I had come to the end of my work on the Ingres series, and I was pulling all the postcards I had of his work off my wall and dropping them on a table. At one point the postcard of his Odalisque was facing up and several other postcards fell on top of it, exposing just a portion of the Odalisque’s back. I took one look at it and thought that it was a perfect painting. I taped the postcards to the image just as they fell, as a means to crop it, and then I made a painting of it.


                                                     The Back

                                                     13" x 10"

                                                     oil on linen, 1992


Once I saw this “figure painting”, I thought it would be interesting to work with real models, and instead of deconstructing paintings from the past on shaped canvases, play with the iconography of past figure paintings, in particular, those around Adam and Eve, and reverse it – have Eve take the role of Adam and vise versa. So, I continued to have this conversation with past art, but I had stepped away from quoting that art directly.


Instead of working in series now, I think I just revisit territory. I am usually after some quality of light, or an element of complexity, or quite frequently to paint something that I think can’t be painted. The subject – what the things are in the painting are always secondary for me.


MK:  What is the importance of scale?  Why do you choose to work in “monumental scale”?


LP:  I believe that scale is relative to the size of a body. So, if you were to stretch out your arms and legs and measure those points, most decorative household paintings are smaller than that. They exist as objects in space and we relate to them as such. When a painting starts to get larger than that, our relationship to it changes. Now it assumes the scale of a room or a landscape, it is something we inhabit and not an object that we look at from a distance. I want to be enveloped by the painting.


MK:  In a statement on Saatchi Online you write, “My subjects—water, trees, crystal, china,
recycled bales of paper and cans—become vehicles for shape, color, space and light. I employ monumental scale, all-over composition, and gestures that assert the surface of the painting, painted in oil on linen or canvas, some as large as 60 inches by 70 inches, my paintings, when viewed up-close, appear to be merely flecks of paint. From a distance, however, they look photo-realistic.” 



                                                     44" x 66"

                                                     oil on linen, 2009


                                                     Branches, detail.


Have you always painted so that "up-close they appear to be merely flecks of paint"?


LP:  When I worked on the Ingres paintings I had to learn how to paint with glazes, which I don’t use in any of my other work. All of the current work “appears as flecks of paint close up”. What I have found is that if you paint very tightly close up, it appears hyper-real or too sharp from a distance.  To me, that quality can deaden the surface. Chuck Close is a more extreme version of what I do. Painterliness is important to me. It enlivens the surface. I’m all for pushing the paint around.


Interview Continues