In “Life Drawings, Poseurs, and ‘thirteen oil paintings on canvas,'” the ambitious solo debut by New York-based Greg Parma Smith at Balice Hertling & Lewis, the artist takes on the history of painting and the stratified social structures around it. Comprising oil paintings on canvas and mirror, wall appliqué and an illuminated manuscript of sorts, made of bound canvases covered in a text written in graffiti, the works explore art subcultures—academic figure painting and autobiographic zine comics—that fine art has yet to cannibalize. Visually, they are jarringly dissimilar, but thematically, they are a balancing act between opposing concerns—content vs. aesthetics, self-reflexivity vs. interconnectedness, and the idealized human in a world without any unified norms.
In the figurative paintings, which depict nude subjects in poses after an anatomy book that Parma Smith received for Christmas, 21st-century subjects—an Asian girl with her hair dyed green, a bald black man in a heroic pose, a dark skinned woman with her back facing the viewer—are subjected to the tyranny of the “ideal” form immortalized in 19th century academic art. Painted during live sittings, the surfaces of the works are covered in embossed gesso symbols of vaguely ethnic origins—recalling, but not copying, Arabic, Celtic, and Chinese symbols-that interfere with reading the canvases as straightforward portraits. They exoticize the bodies of the subjects, thereby implicating them as “others” despite their perfect forms.
In the “zine” works, contemporary cartoon characters unknowingly marked by the concerns of a 19th-century Romantic-in the sense that in their emotionally-fraught, almost outmoded musings, they attempt to find their place within a larger, unknown world-are presented in a schizophrenic style like the new Facebook timeline. Patch-worked on canvas and mirror, the brightly colored cells depict hipsters with guitars, girls wearing glasses staring at computer monitors, and figures discussing Dada in the galleries of a museum.
A.i.A. sat down with Parma Smith to discuss subcultures.
BRIENNE WALSH The series in the exhibition are quite different in terms of technique.
GREG PARMA SMITH The zine paintings I started working on a few years ago. I was thinking a lot about how pop art brings low culture into high art by appropriating mass media. I thought it would be really interesting to appropriate for my own work something that doesn’t normally fit the normal definition of mass media. I chose these underground comics, which are black and white first-person narratives that illustrate people’s daily lives and experiences. The figurative painting I started later, when I started becoming interested in other subcultures in art.
WALSH What connections did you start making between the two?
PARMA SMITH Well, both practices are ostensibly “art,” but don’t really overlap with dominant discourses in contemporary art because they aren’t at all self-reflexive. They persist, and are practiced by separate groups of people, and are in no way lowbrow or folk culture. Contemporary art is all about taking subcultures from outside, austere spaces, and bringing them into a lucrative market. But in these works, that tension between authenticity and commercialization doesn’t exist, at least not yet, because they have yet to be appropriated by a the larger art market.
WALSH Do you think the idea of selling out, or trying not to sell out, or even just exploring the possibility is central to your work?
PARMA SMITH I think clinging to “indie culture” or avoiding commercialization is outdated. That kind of cultural capital can be quickly traded in, as I was just talking about. With the Internet, there’s almost nothing so inaccessible that it can preserve its supposed authenticity. What’s most important to me, at this point, is content.
WALSH Why content?
PARMA SMITH Because actually thinking about the content in your work forces you to take responsibility, as opposed to say producing a photocopied magazine without thinking about what it says or means, or the way that it relates to the larger world. That might be a radical social form, but it’s still filled with this incredibly myopic, old school content. There’s an annoying hypocrisy there.
WALSH The figurative paintings in the exhibition are impressively precise in their execution. Did you study academic painting in school? [Parma Smith graduated from Columbia’s MFA program in 2007]
PARMA SMITH I never formally studied it, and never thought that it would enter my art. But then my stepsister gave me an artist anatomy book for Christmas. At first, I was really repelled by the gift because it didn’t speak to the kind of art I was making. But when I realized the illustrations were highly aestheticized, almost as if they were influenced by the work of someone like Robert Mapplethorpe, and the drawings immediately became something more interesting to me.
WALSH Did you paint directly from the illustrations in the book?
PARMA SMITH No, in fact, I painted them all from life, using the poses in the books. It took about 25 hours for each one of them. It was a really Luddite way of making the painting, but I like the problems that come up when you paint from life-just translating three-dimensional space to a two-dimensional surface. If I had been copying already from a two-dimensional illustration or photograph, I would have pathologically tried to reproduce the image as perfectly as possible. With a human being right in front of you, there’s a time limit, and it’s impossible to be perfect. I also appreciate the bizarre fidelity to an old way of painting.
WALSH All of the figurative paintings have glyphs raised from the surface of the canvas, but camouflaged by the paint in the portraits upon first glance. I wonder if the symbols have any meaning?
PARMA SMITH They are meant to represent something of an Orientalist attitude, in the sense that they give a romantic view of the exotic in Arab, Celtic, and Chinese cultures, to name a few. Others just reference 19th century tropes-the horse, for example, was a major symbol in the work of 19th century painters from Delacroix to Géricault.
WALSH Are they, in a sense, body art or decoration, or do they have a meaning entirely distinct from the figures depicted in the works?
PARMA SMITH I just liked that they interfere with the read of the image, but don’t block it out entirely. It’s a way of presenting a human form as more of an aesthetic project rather than just a representation.
WALSH How does the illuminated manuscript in the center of the room tie in to the rest of the exhibition?
PARMA SMITH Well, the book is written using graffiti writing, which is a reference to another kind of subculture in art. I took the text from the same anatomy textbook as the drawings. The texts vary from passages that are very scientific sounding, about anatomy nomenclature, to talking about beginner’s mistakes in modeling shadow on the body.
WALSH Half of the zine paintings are on canvas, and half of them are on mirror. Why the two different bases?
PARMA SMITH The mirrors are this dumb, literal way to implicate the viewer in these different narratives about young, cool people. But I mostly thought of the show as a kind of balancing act between a fairly diverse array of different ideas. By breaking up the canvases, and patch-working the individual pictures, it becomes difficult to read the actual text. You have to look at them formally and aesthetically rather than as literal narratives.