Cognitive psychologists tell us the mind processes information from remarkably few hints and that it does so very quickly. The 16th-century Milanese painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, for example, pressed our perceptual skills with his positively funky portraits of people made out of fruits and vegetables. Erik Parker, in his first New York show since 2005, turns to portraiture in his own exploration of the limits of recognition. Leaving aside the Rorschach-like symmetry of his earlier work, he has created large-scale portraits (most 2008-09) that are fragmented to smithereens. Our eye flickers over the jumble, sorting out the nose, locating the eyes, assembling the possible ears and tongues.
With an arsenal of subcultural influences, including ’60s psychedelic graphics, underground comics, acid-freak color, hotrod-pimping curlicues, Mad magazine-style popping eyes, sci-fi cartoon blobs and squirts, graffiti tags and heavy metal album covers, Parker sets out to challenge conventional taste with the provocative jeer of the counterculture. The paintings’ brightly colored backgrounds of swirls and arcs are but the subdued intro to the manic explosion of the central image—the portrait. Made up of small squiggles and blobs and body parts, with an emphasis on lurid blues and hot pinks, the visual frenzy is like a metal band cutting looseor a final head-banging climax.
Most of the pictures are quite large, more than 7 by 5 feet, and 3 inches deep. That depth gives the canvases real bulk and allows Parker to continue the painting around the sides. The acrylic surfaces are quite flat, the execution deadpan and very neat, like sign painting. As in earlier works, Parker incorporates words, enigmatic phrases such as “Crisis Creation,” “Sink or Swim” and “Self-Made Man,” which appear like album titles integrated into the overall design.
Parker wants to push buttons. Recent interviews with him make much of his wayward adolescence and his scrapes with the law, and the gallery press release itemizes his subculture chops. Yet after the initial visual assault, these paintings, which set out to goad with their in-your-face, freak-out, biomorphic monsters, seem more noise than anything else, and recede into their stoner niche like their psychedelic antecedents. Conventionally unconventional.
Photo above: Self-Made Man, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 781⁄4 by 661⁄4 inches; at Paul Kasmin.