BY Karen Rosenberg in Reviews | 03 MAR 03
Featured in
Issue 73

Erik Parker

Leo Koenig, New York, USA

BY Karen Rosenberg in Reviews | 03 MAR 03

Erik Parker's new paintings suggest the consciousness of someone on mind-altering substances trying to keep up with the ticker of a 24-hour information channel. To such an individual the clipped, syntactically incoherent phrases qualifying as up-to-the-minute news - a B-list celebrity's birthday, followed by extreme weather in the Midwest, followed by the latest stalemate in the Middle East - might seem to unfurl from the screen and rearrange themselves in nebulous clusters, with some Onion newspaper headlines and personal trivia finding their way into the mix.

Such is Parker's take on the media circus, in a show that marks a shift in his focus from a musical spectrum to a political one. On a formal level he continues to mine Carroll Dunham and Robert Crumb's grotesque cartoon imagery, as well as the streetwise scrawls of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Intestinal labyrinths and priapic bulges form haloes around hand-lettered curlicues of text, with hundreds of words cluttering a single image. Parker's formula is equal parts Rorschach test, family tree and medical cross-section, all filtered through an acid-rock mushroom cloud.

The texts themselves are loosely organized around infamy and scandal, spewing forth names and phrases like so many indigestible sound bites. Mark Lombardi's tidy maps of bureaucracy come to mind, as do the snide checklists of Peter Davies. While information overload is an exhausted topic, Parker's role as a court reporter and, at times, court jester of Hip-Hop culture has given his work another dimension. Here there are fewer of the far-flung musical genealogies that dominated

'Thiswhiteboysteals', his show at Koenig in 2000, and less Eminem-style foregrounding of cultural theft. Instead, Parker casts a wide net over current and occasional past events, encompassing, among other things, war threats, art-world whodunnits and a national obesity problem. The resulting canvases are largely compelling, despite having built-in expiry dates.

Born in Germany and brought up in Texas, Parker feels qualified to comment on American fallacies as both insider and outsider - reserving his most scathing criticism for the current White House's cowboy-in-residence. Love No Go Home (2002) maps oil money, the electric chair and other charms of the Lone Star State. Can't Explain charts the intricacies of current events in the Middle East, with contemporaneous goings-on such as the Catholic Church scandals and the death of The Who's bass player John Entwistle caught up in the synaptic web. In a broader cultural indictment It Takes a Nation of Billions to Hold Us Back (2002), inspired by the popular book Fast Food Nation (2001), disembowels the notorious global franchise.

Too often these incredibly detailed networks of culpability effect a sort of stoned bemusement, when what Parker really means to do is draw us in. Outrage is palpable in works such as Guggenheimothership Bream 'Em Off Sumtin (2002), a riff on the museum-cum-brand's unorthodox fundraising strategies, and Is This It (2002), an apocalyptic rumination on the delicate euphemism of 'regime change'; but the message gets lost somewhere in the humour and baroque grooviness of his imagery, as in one of those flowery 'Make Love, Not War' posters from the 1970s. Perhaps Parker is aware that, in a New York gallery setting, he's mostly preaching to the converted.

Fortunately, not all of his themes are so topical. You Paint the Picture (which doubles as the show's title) diagrams the death in 1985 of Carl Andre's wife, Ana Mendieta, and Andre's subsequent murder trial, fusing a police log with a Who's Who of the blue chip art world. Another canvas, Sweet Back Man (2002), explores the legend of Huddie Ledbetter, the folk musician and sometime convict better-known as Leadbelly, who died in 1949. Odd choices though they may seem, these two narratives make for the most interesting work, concerned with myth and conspiracy theory rather than ideology.

Parker's stated aim is a visual equivalent of Hip-Hop, which implies a certain amount of bombast but also a sincere vulnerability. 'You try to write 154 names in one painting, you get to know just how many that is', he comments, referring to his failed attempt to list all the victims of George W. Bush's capital punishment policies in the earlier work Texecuted (2001). Writing, as a mnemonic and even memorializing act, is an important aspect of Parker's work that is often overlooked. For one thing, it gives him more street cred, linking his art to Hip-Hop's graffiti shrines and frequent references to fallen brethren. Teeming with satiric verve and lurid vitality, Parker's paintings are perversely morbid - and they promise to linger in the mind long after the ticker has moved on.