When news of Steven Parrino’s tragic death reached Europe on 1 January 2005, the Swiss art scene was hit hard. The American biker, musician and artist who was born in 1958 had many friends and admirers, starting with kindred spirit Olivier Mosset. It was no exaggeration to call Switzerland his second home. Until his untimely demise Parrino’s work had drawn little attention in the US, and his virtual participation at this year’s Whitney Biennial with his last finished work felt more like a bitter and belated homage.
MAMCO in Geneva, on the other hand, was already planning a major exhibition before the artist’s death. Parrino had established the basic outlines of the show with the curator Fabrice Stroun, who completed the project. With a few exceptions the structure was not chronological, and there was no added context in the form of texts or documents. One never had the impression of the exhibition being a retrospective – rather, it felt like a mid-career survey, one that also managed to show the relevance of this figure to recent American art.
Parrino began producing art at the end of the 1970s, driven, as he said himself, by his ‘necrophiliac interest’ in painting, which at that time had been pronounced dead. Employing appropriation and monochromy, Parrino takes his place in the 1980s in the line that leads from Kazimir Malevich via Lucio Fontana and Frank Stella to Andy Warhol. His fetish colours are silver and black – the colours of Harley-Davidson motor bikes, of doomed heavy industry, of guitar amplifiers, of sunglasses, but also of Frank Stella, Warhol and Minimal art, of Kenneth Anger and the Queer underground. As early as 1981 he detached the canvas from the stretcher in places to create rough, folded, cleft surfaces, thus achieving a literal deconstruction of painting. This destructive approach, coupled with a distinctly hostile attitude towards the commercial mechanisms of the art market, takes a noticeably obsessive turn in pictures such as Stockade (1988–91): the black canvas, cleanly punctured in five places as if for a set of stocks, stands as an abstract symbol of coercion and suffering, but also of sado-masochist passion.
For a baby-boomer such as Parrino, however, this destructive abstraction was always counterbalanced by a many-faceted world of Pop and subcultures, phantasms of violence haunting TV, Marvel comics, horror movies and Punk. This is made particularly clear by the drawings and works on paper that marked the beginning of the exhibition in Geneva. The sharp, uncompromising quality of his attitude to art and to American culture is made clear in brilliant works such as Spot Blood Drawing (1983), for which he spat his blood onto a picture of a zombie from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), and especially in White on White (1991), for which he stuck a small flyer from the racist White Aryan Resistance onto a sheet of white paper, abruptly short-circuiting the abstract discourse of Suprematism with the concrete reality of racist supremacists.
Several videos document Parrino as a performer and the central role played by music in his life and work. In Guitar Grind (1995) we see the artist rubbing his bass up against a guitar, causing the two instruments to scream a perfect sonic version of his painterly abstraction through the amplifiers, as if he wanted to render the logic and coherence of his works accessible even to those who can hear but not see.
The show did not conceal Parrino’s deep-seated pessimism: the comic-like Exit/Dark Matter drawings (1999), for example, end with a series of explosions, and the 13 plaster panels painted black and smashed to pieces serve as a memorial to the Punk legend Joey Ramone (13 Shattered Panels for Joey Ramone, 2001). But the last projects Parrino worked on show that he by no means only indulged destructive moods. Opposite the maquette Study for a Model of the Universe to be Placed in the Forbidden Zone (2003), which represents a huge Land art project for the desert consisting of black pyramids in a circle, stand Romulus and Remus (both 2004), two sculptures depicting the mythical founders of Rome as black aluminium panels folded to look like a cross between a Darth Vader helmet and a starship – hinting at the rise and fall of empires. Sadly, Parrino’s oeuvre may never again appear as fresh, clear and unrefined as it does in this show.