Still Life, Good Painting: Patricia Zinsmeister Parker at BAYarts
Patricia Zinsmeister Parker has been an exhibiting artist for a long time, long enough to impact the arts in Ohio and beyond in many ways, but also long enough for general awareness of the importance of her paintings to go in and out of focus. She is also a significant arts educator, who received her advanced and terminal degrees from Kent State University in the 1970s and went on to teach at The University of Akron for 23 years. But mainly it needs to be pointed out (from time to time) that she is one of the region’s most remarkable painters, included in dozens of public collections and ranking high among our strongest, most dedicated and immediately recognizable talents back to at least 1981, when she was awarded the coveted Painting Prize at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s annual May Show.
A sampling of Parker’s recent works, executed mostly on paper in broad strokes of water-based media, make up an engaging solo show titled “The Still Life Still Has Life.” Currently on view at BAYarts’ gallery, most of these newer paintings depict women’s faces in classic portrait bust poses. There are also three somewhat larger still life works which (riffing to an extent on post-impressionism) present objects rendered in bright off-shades displayed on a table or, in one case, scattered over a couple of tables, viewed from an up-in-the-air, sideways perspective. In “Everything but the kitchen sink,” a vase with flowers, an ewer, a jug and a butter dish are flattened against a swirling linear pattern, yet they carry their shadows with them, pointing in several directions, as if assembled in a common dimension but clipped from different times of day, or other dimensions. The pink and fuchsia whorls of the patterned tablecloth, slung over the irregular round shape of the table, are like a big fingerprint and spark yet other associations. It’s all like a Flatland dream of three dimensions, a dream or a caricature. The works at BAYarts explore some of the self-contradictory faux-naïve, slightly sarcastic awkwardness of technique that has been the hallmark of Parker’s neo-expressionist approach since the late 1970s. One of her strategies over the years has been to paint with her non-dominant, “untrained” hand as a way to outflank the conscious mind, taking a shortcut toward the disconcerting ambiguities of real life and human psychology. Fine art pretensions are slapped down and raw feeling begins to bump and bubble under art’s all-too- thin skin. Her compositions are imbued with about equal measures of impatience and surprise, as they poke down into and under surfaces – not to undermine superficial appearances (as Cubism did, for instance), but interrogating superficiality itself, dipping into lower layers of the mind to suggest hidden dimensions of intent.
Something like that was also the aim of the so called “Bad Painting” movement of the late 1970s, which coincided with Parker’s prize-winning 1981 painting “The Boxmaker,” a six foot square composition in latex paint on canvas. Like many of her works since, that one (now in the permanent collection of the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown) incorporated a few clearly legible words and phrases, as if it were an outsider artist’s rendition of an annotated diagram. As in expressionist painting generally, a sense of the artist’s hand and the significance of mark-making are important factors in these works. Even so, the mass-produced quality of the house paint in that work, spread over a collage-like lumpy, bumpy painting surface, suggest the presence of something else. The deliberate crudeness of the drawing and writing added to this mix make “The Boxmaker” seem like an account of a new beginning. It’s a rusty, damaged, challenging new beginning that Parker unearths, blinking and stuttering toward form across the half-buried ruins of a postindustrial picture plane.
The paintings of women at BAYarts share stylistic traits with those big, more programmatic paintings. More interestingly, they’re also a revelation of the spriteliness of Parker’s painterly sensibility, which has often been submerged in layers of household paint and ruthless experimentation. Each face in these relatively casual studies evokes a striking sense of personality. These women haven’t been leveled by the grinding forces of life or late modernity. Two of them are titled “A Woman of a Certain Age.” Measuring 24”/18” each shows a different dark-haired person; both are a little funny, and each is more than a little alive. Rendered in a pink-tinged grisaille, AWOACA #1 has her hair parted in the middle, and instead of looking out at the viewer glances slightly down and to the left, as her head swivels toward her shoulder. A faint shadow divides her face in two (as in memorable paintings by Matisse of his wife), her small white teeth are exposed (though not in a smile); her chin and rounded, barely sagging cheeks suggest, just as the title says, a certain age. Her eyebrows (one sloping down, the other running across, half-knit), like the facial shadow suggest a divided mind.
The other painting with that title on display at BAYarts depicts a very similar looking person, but with her face and torso painted a bright, Frankenstein green. Her tiny, tightly closed mouth is a complementary apple red, her eyes are wide open, staring over the viewer’s shoulder, again a little to the left. She seems quite startled, even shocked, yet she might be in a trance. After all, I think she is a spirit more than a human being.
All of Parker’s paintings are worth a second and third look (at least). The impression they give initially of almost child-like simplicity is a deliberately misleading ploy. Art historical echoes sound from every corner of the past century in the conception of these works. And there is a summoning of human psychic presence and behavior, indwelling in Parker’s images. They are the achievement of an artist who is able to complete a circuit between herself, her materials, and the world almost carelessly, after a lifetime of extraordinary effort.
The Still Life Still Has Life: Patricia Zinsmeister Parker
August 14 – October 2, 2020
BAYarts Sullivan Family Gallery
28795 Lake Road
Bay Village, Ohio 44140