Lucinda Parker is considered by many the most prominent painter in Portland, but her multi-decade career hasn’t won her as much recognition locally as in our sister city to the south. KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin, thinks that a big reason for that might be the tough, uncompromising quality of her work: bold, gestural abstractions that refuse to meet the viewer halfway. Gary joins us with his observations on Ms. Parker’s current exhibition in Pioneer Square.
Lucinda Parker speaks of taking her inspiration from nature, but Thoreau would have had her thrown out of Walden Pond for disturbing the peace. Her big, noisy paintings are celebrations of energy, movement, and conflict. To the extent that they are inspired by the natural world, it is the realm of tsunamis, windstorms, icebergs, and waterfalls – force colliding with force. For Thoreau, nature offered a refuge from the pace and stress of urban life; Parker, on the other hand, uses nature to connect to a world of tumult and artistically-contained chaos.
Parker’s work takes as its point of departure the messy, emotional abstraction that became prominent after the Second World War, a reaction to the earlier, far more intellectual approach of abstract artists like Klee and Mondrian. But while artists like De Kooning and Pollock shattered form in favor of pure movements of contorted paint, Parker populates her work with bounded, geometrical shapes, including crescents, ovoids, French curves, sickles, and pie slices. The way she paints these loopy shapes and their environment is the most striking feature of her work, the result of what appears to be a virtual wrestling match with her painterly materials.
No tool seems to be spared in her struggle, and every painting bears traces of earlier versions and partly-covered lower layers. Paint has been applied by brush, knife, spatter, drip, and liquid pours. Frequently the uppermost paint layer has been scraped, sanded, and even chiseled away, here and there leaving odd-looking trails of open blisters cut through the shiny acrylic surface, with multicolored rings marking underlying levels. There’s a pictorial logic here: Parker’s paintings are about process, things becoming other things, things intersecting and interpenetrating, and they have been created by what looks like an exploratory, experimental process in itself. I’m reminded a bit of Elizabeth Murray, one of the leading abstract painters of the recent past, whose big, clunky cartoonish shapes are also engaged in beating each other up, their movements reinforced by action lines like those that are everywhere in Parker’s work. But the comparison is a real stretch: Murray is a born entertainer, with a Technicolor palette and lots and lots of white space; while Parker, much more mordant in her outlook, crams every part of her images with roiling, textured paint, with few if any restful passages. What’s more, Parker employs a far darker, almost monochromatic palette whose limited range is one of the chief weaknesses of her work.
There is no cuddling up to one of these paintings, and no easy way in; they stand on their own terms, and we can take them or leave them. The dominant colors of cadmium yellow, dirty white, and black overwhelm everything else, although many other colors make an appearance, especially cobalt and ultramarine blue. It is a rare Northwest artist indeed who references the local landscape without using green, and only the odd bit of brown, and I can’t think of another artist who even approaches Parker’s singular palette.
Why this particular set of colors? The acidic yellow provides the background, and black and white the foreground, for Parker’s spiky dramas, and it appears that she sees the yellow as a sort of energy field pushing along – or resulting from - the main action, complete with lines of force that pulse through her negative spaces. Yellow has lots of heat, but no weight, and it gets in your face; that must be part of the attraction as well.
It’s ironic that most of the large paintings have titles which refer to clouds and cloud forms, since puffy white towers of air and water vapor are the last thing that most of the images bring to mind. Take “Cumulus”, at 5 feet by 6 ½ feet, one of the largest paintings in the show. It’s all sharp edges and cutting curves, with barely enough room for its central knot of slightly awkward pie slices stacked atop and colliding with each other. Each flat, off-white slice is heavily outlined and streaked with lines, spots, drips, and dashes, and Parker has carefully used shadows to indicate which shape is on top and which below. At the center of the action – like all the pictures, this one appears to be in violent motion – one of the slices is being split up the middle by a long and precise sliver of yellow, like a clam being pried open by a knife. The similar “Dirty Weather” reminded me of beached whales, complete with fins and flippers, with black, liquid rills of paint spilling out like blood from the shape’s middle, where the whale’s back appears to be broken.
My favorite painting in the show is also part of the cloud series, but it is lyrical rather than conflicted – Mendelssohn instead of Beethoven. “Stratocumulus” is a vertical set of stacked crescent shapes, floating in unison rather than colliding, and outlined with bright blue and yellow instead of black. A diminutive white sun sits oddly in the lower left corner, inert and unconnected to the surrounding forms. Here Parker has purposely minimized the collisions, protrusions, splits, and collapses that feature so prominently elsewhere, and the canvas isn’t nearly so dark. Dealer Linda Hodges has wisely chosen this painting to hang nearest the window – it’s the least intimidating, and the friendliest.
Curiously, Parker follows a different agenda with the smaller works on view, many of which feature both a more varied collection of her trademark clunky objects and a much more literal evocation of landscape, with recognizable horizon, trees, and sky. These “accessible” images are more like a travelogue through territories of the artist’s imagination, and less like a report from the front. It’s as though Parker feels that her large works need to be “serious”, allowing her smaller works more room for play.
Lucinda Parker both deserves her reputation as an important artist and as a “difficult” artist, choosing to paint unlovely shapes in unlovely colors, with agitated moods and agitated surfaces. Her work is at its best when its harsher traits are balanced by her intense wit, imagination, and inventiveness; at its weakest when it seems both repetitive and relentless.