A visionary artist inspired by underground comics, graffiti, music and conspiracy theories, as well as the art of Picasso, Bacon, and Basquiat, Erik Parker makes fantastic paintings and drawings of biomorphic maps, twisted heads, humorous hieroglyphics, surreal stills lives, and bizarre landscapes that exquisitely exploit both psychological and psychedelic realms. The subject of recent solo shows at New York’s Paul Kasmin Gallery, NANZUKA in Tokyo and Madrid’s Galería Javier López , Parker reminisces about the origins and development of his energetic work with artBahrain contributing editor Paul Laster.

 

What first drew you into art?

Mad magazine, and from there it was community college. I saw these guys making paintings of lowriders and started taking art courses. It was a great place to be. I was getting money on a grant to go. I stayed for four years.

Who were your influences at the time?

The proper ones: Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and the Pop artists. It wasn’t until I went to school in Austin, Texas and studied with Peter Saul that I found out about the Chicago Imagists and the whole way of doing things in the wrong way, kind of oddball looking.

Was Jean-Michel Basquiat an influence?

He was a huge influence—it kind of rolls in and out—along with Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf.

When did you move to New York and what was your first impression of the city?

I moved to the city in 1996 and it was a big change. I lived in the Bronx. It was cheap, really cheap.

What was your first big break?

There was a cluster of them. I was in a group show at the alternative space White Columns, which led to a wall painting at Gavin Brown Enterprise’s with Rirkrit Tiravanija and my exhibiting in Greater New York at MoMA PS1, a more public breakout.

That was in 2000. What were you doing before that?

Working in galleries, mainly at Luhring Augustine and a bit for David Zwirner, when he was in SoHo—schlepping, moving Franz West furniture.

Is that how you hooked up with Leo Koenig, who represented you for several years?

I met Leo when I was installing a summer group show at Luhring Augustine and Leo was representing one of the artists in the show, Dara Birnbaum.

So your first big break was great visibility in Greater New York. Didn’t the collectors Michael and Susan Hort lend your painting that was in the lobby?

Yeah, the Horts gave me a grant [Rema Hort Mann Foundation Award] in 1999. There was the grant, group show, Gavin’s, and Greater New York. That allowed me to get some money to stop working as much, even though I stilled worked a bit at the galleries. After the grant, Michael and Susan Hort came by the studio and bought the piece that they lent to MoMA PS1.

What kind of works were you doing at that time?

I was making text-based works that were about picking a theme or not having a theme at all, creating a place to write these clusters of words, usually spewing out of comic-bookie, anus structures with free association writing—ego graffiti.

How did you start showing with Leo Koenig? Was it when he took over the Four Walls space in Williamsburg?

Yeah, I would go by there and hang out. Then he saw the work and asked me to do a show. It happened very quickly. I always needed money. I was very eager. I had to care for a child and I just went for it. Knowing where Leo was coming from, with his education, and his knowledge of contemporary art, and the art world connections by way of his father [Kasper Koenig, the celebrated German curator and former director of the Museum Ludwig in Cologne] and his family [the art book publisher Walter Koenig and Berlin art dealer Johan Koenig.] It seemed like a smart move.

That was life back then, what’s your life like now?

It’s mainly family, painting, listening to music, and viewing things online. I’m in the studio twice a day, nearly every day. I go through phases of looking at art catalogues and things online to nothing, but right now I’m back on, looking at Carroll Dunham’s work. It’s fierce! I love his ‘90s stuff with the foam balls on it. His drawings are fantastic; his prints are great; and I’m heavy on the paintings.

What artists have influenced you the most? We may have already touched on it, but let’s review it again.

I have a long list. The first major influence guy was probably Basquiat—Rauschenberg and Basquiat. Once I hit Basquiat I kind of snowballed into “oh you can do this and you can do that.” It resonated more with my age. It had the hip-hop sensibility, and at that time there wasn’t the crossover yet. Hip-hop was like whoa! Even when I got to the University of Texas they were like why is this white guy listening to hip-hop? You had to like David Salle. So I would say Basquiat, Rauschenberg, and Haring were cool and the school had a big library, where I got into Ed Paschke, Peter Saul, Jim Nutt and David Hammons. I look at David Hammons and get it right away—it’s very powerful.

What kind of research did you do on the text paintings, in order to load them with information?

I found out that if I bought books and used them for paintings, I could write them off from my taxes. I bought books that interested me. Amazon was just starting up so I would order books online and I’d buy as many art magazines as I could on the stands.

As the work evolved, you started to paint subjects that are more representational. What are the influences that you are drawing on now? For example, the show you had at Gallery Faurschou in Copenhagen with the big heads, they were kind of Picasso-esque.

Yeah, or Bacon-y—how to kind of beat him. I was thinking of post-conspiracy theory a little bit: the new human, eugenics. And then taking the way I paint and applying it to making those heads. They were simple problems. I like to keep it simple and just roll with it.

And that led into the still lives?

Right.

How would you describe your process of taking something and filtering it?

It’s setting a challenge for myself. I looked at all of the heads and said how do I do something that could possibly be pretty. I have a tough time making a painting that’s not intense. So flowers might be good because everyone likes flowers, right? The idea was to talk about beauty instead of tearing apart the human form. It’s still going to be paranoid because I’m kind of a paranoid guy; it’s going to be intense because that’s just the way it is; and it could also be beautiful. That’s why I chose the still life. It’s something recognizable that the viewer can enter right away.

How would you define your art—from the text paintings, the heads, the still lives, the hieroglyphic drawings, and the new landscapes and jungle paintings?

You could call it formalism. It’s about being active, keeping the brain active, and just keeping on making stuff. I don’t like to use the word practice—it makes me nervous—or artwork, it’s more art labour. I like to just keep busy.

Do you feel a sense of play with what you do?

Yeah, I’m addicted to it. I’m very fortunate that I can do this all day.

What are the sources that fed the new landscape paintings?

On a conceptual level Lee “Scratch” Perry’s music. On a visual level Matisse and Rousseau.

Henri Rousseau? How long has he been an inspiration?

A long time, on and off, he’s one of those guys that you have to close the book, and then look at it again.

What about Matisse? How long have you been into his work?

Not so long. I thought he was a lightweight for many years and then it just hit me. He’s kind of a new thing for me over the past two years.

How important is music to your work?

It’s extremely important! It’s kind of a backbone and I think of things in terms of a song structure or an album—the paintings for a show could each be a song and the show an album. When they leave the studio, we have the record, the album. It’s an easier way for me to process things—the breakdown between this song, this song, and this song and how things operate between songs. Music is on all of the time in the studio.

Looking back over your body of work, do you see an evolution of music or are you still listening to some of the same songs that you were playing in the beginning?

Some things come in and out, like this show was a lot of dub and reggae, and I used to listen to a lot of the same music in the ‘90s. We’re deep in dub!

What kind of worlds are you trying to create on canvas?

They could be bad or they could be good; it’s undetermined. I want them to be otherworldly, sort of sci-fi, conspiracy, paranoid, intense—have to be intense—realms.

Where do they begin, these worlds?

Here, kind of, and from other sources, and then in here, and out there. They begin here, somewhat, and they end up here.

What’s the greatest challenge of being an artist?

Keeping it going. Pushing it. Reinventing your self. Not being stagnant. None of the other stuff, like trends, is important. It’s about pushing your vision.