Thursday evening, Sept 10,2015, New Britain Museum of American Art
Considering that I had written a preview review of the newly reconstructed NBMAA galleries, I wanted to visit them first hand and also attend the Graydon Parrish gallery talk to attempt to understand what he might be referring to when he labels his work Post Contemporary.
His large canvas called The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy is something I had encountered in previous visits. It's a memorial piece eulogizing the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and it was commissioned by the NBMAA and the parents of someone who lost their life in the events of that day.
Art takes on significance in many ways and memorial works acquire emotional and sentimental value for those who express their grief and orphaned love through them. It's important to respect those emotions as projected into the symbol such a memorial represents. That said, I want to offer a wholly artistic critique of the work. This critique is not a critique of those who are emotionally coupled to the piece.
In my previous visits, I simply disliked the piece because it failed to connect with me. I didn't like the scale, the painting style, nor could I decipher the obvious narrative elements it contained. I had hoped the gallery talk by Parrish might change my mind.
Graydon Parrish looks very much like a prima donna and his demeanor is punctuated by humorous quips that have been vetted in previous talks. A search of YouTube produces a near identical monologue delivered some years ago in the same venue. During his talk, I warmed up to him a bit. He's forever saddled with a beast of his own making and there's a real burden in that.
A lot of his gallery talk sounds very patronizing to his bread and butter audience - the true believers. They refer to the piece as a masterpiece and to Graydon as a genius. Graydon is more than happy to milk that sentiment and compares aspects of his painting to Picasso and Michelangelo. In both cases, the similarity is wholly wishful thinking but hey, you have to kill time somehow in these gallery talks.
As I listened to him explain the painting I found that I disliked it even more after the explanations than when the thing merely confused me. Parrish uses the painting as a blunt instrument. He claims (and promtional material echoes) the idea that the painting is "allegorical" - representing a historical snapshot. He also claims it is complex. And he has a cultist fervor for its realism, "beauty", and old-fashioned aesthetics (I'm guessing this is what he calls Post Contemporary).
Parrish is a fine, skilled technical painter and his painting is filled with dozens of examples of academic virtuosity. Young and old human figures, flowing cloth, atmospheric effects are all abundantly represented. It is the kind of realist illusionism that was common hundreds of years ago when Western Art's central theme was Christian scenes and more Christian scenes. In the context of a memorial painting about an event that often used Christianity and the Muslim religion as counterpoints and given the cultural diversity of the victims, the theological implications of the work are dubious.
And Parrish is correct in feeling uncomfortable as a Contemporary artist. Both his narrative layers and his black and white religious kitsch are difficult to logically reconcile. Unlike well curated PostModern appropriations of symbol, icon, and metaphor, Parrish's piece is a mishmash of self-promotion ("postContemporary" advocacy), misunderstanding allegory for fabulism, and in his fabulism he conflates the cycle of life with the political invention of a "cycle of terror and tragedy". This reduces the piece to little more than a monumental visual gravestone whose sentiments are not universal but slapped together to satisfy a grieving audience.
The narrative of the piece, rather than representing a natural cycle of life interrupted by a sudden tragic event asserts that the cycle of life is little more than a sequence of innocence, terror, tragedy, then wisdom and a reincarnation of the cycle yet again. This is a philosophical Stockholm syndrome in which victims embrace victimhood as an explanation for all of life. Parrish claims the scene of three grieving women (likely lifted from just about any illustrated crucifixion painting from the golden age of crucifixion paintings) in fact represent the three Greek fates (destiny's beginning, middle, end). His audience finds this profound to one degree or another but the conClation of Christianity and pre-destiny is little more than oxymoron. To make matters worse these destiny symbols are grieving (instead of just observing and saying "that's what I'm talking about"). To add insult to philosophical injury, Parrish points to the woman with the handkerchief to her mouth and says that has to do with the chemical/biologic attack.
The narrative is a victim-hood fiction, start to finish and it contains flourishes of Disney-like fable. To the very right in the painting is a yellow smudge that stands out of the chaos like a Tinkerbell, "That", Parrish asserts, "is the glimmer of hope!" as he rolls his eyes and twists away for dramatic effect. Just below is a ribbon that shapes the infinity symbol ("Infinity AND Beyond!"). The color palette is red, white, and blue. There's a black woman and white women. The men are the towers and the women (in classic realist glory) are supporting props. There's an hour or more of Parrish explaining all this and its jaw-dropping in many more cases.
The ultimate failure of the piece however lies in the choice of choosing Grayson Parrish as the artist. Parrish is an evangelist for a return to realist painting and claims to allegorical painting in his own work. The attack of September 11 was not an attack on individuals or even the United States, the attack was an attack on Modernity - technological progress, Contemporary Art, religious differences, human dignity that transcends class of birth, and so on.
The irony of the piece is that Parrish's evangelism is the same cultural attack on Modernity and in many ways his audience are philosophically more coupled to the terrorists than they imagine themselves to be. It is noteworthy that in Parrish's painting the narrative concludes with a survivor whose lesson from the event bestows wisdom. This fiction conveniently ignores the fact that the terror of 9/11 was followed by a decade or more of random and directed vengeance and retribution, not wisdom.