Mike Parr

Dark Cave
Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne

Dark Cave is the result of veteran Australian artist Mike Parr processing the final stages of trauma he has accumulated across his long-standing performance art practice. The demands of the performances in question date as far back as the eighties, with their lingering effects coming to a head in the middle of 2015, during a previous exhibition at the Anna Schwartz Gallery. Parr became so dissatisfied with the series of self-portrait prints he presented at this previous exhibition that he painted over all of them, irrespective of whether Anna Schwartz had sold the work or not. Dark Cave sees Parr continuing to use painting as his chosen medium, but this time he has employed an approach that incorporates the lessons learnt from his past crises. For this body of work, Parr established a working method that applies a time constraint to the completion of each uniformly sized, unstretched canvas. No more than nine hours was allocated to the completion of every work, a precondition that has enabled Parr to treat the act of painting as a method through which he can re-assess the trajectory of his wider practice, whilst establishing vital psychological boundaries between his person and his art.

Parr’s practice has consistently focussed on testing the limits of conceptualisations of the body through acts of public endurance. Sometimes this has meant the violent testing of precisely his own body; sometimes it has involved interrogating the wider body politic of the Australian nation state. The extremely demanding performances he has undertaken towards these ends (physically, mentally or otherwise) have established Parr as one of Australia’s most confronting and, consequently, infamous art personalities. However, these performances do not come without a toll on the artist himself. It may seem odd that Parr has chosen to grapple with this trauma by returning once again to painting at a time when the artistic and political landscape of Australia needs his performance practice the most. However the medium’s clear delineation between artist and artwork offers him the ability to negotiate with the demands of his practice in a way his performances do not allow. Parr respects his self-imposed constraints—even if they appear arbitrary to the viewer—because these constraints allow him to grapple with re-establishing the limitations of his self in relation to the world around him. 

To pick up the paintbrush and start to rearticulate workable boundaries is undoubtedly a powerful and political act. It is the oscillation between artist and artwork, internal and the external that forms the subject matter of Dark Cave. The exhibition’s ten paintings feature recurring themes of abstracted, loosely worked landscapes, and horizon lines broken by the ominous presence of the cave entrance itself. Profiles of the artist overlap, collide and stake their claim on the negative space of the canvas. These motifs are expressed in dry brush strokes and thick, swift lines of earthy, dark colours against sour opaque underpainting. Each work is frank in appearance and energy, a quality that stems from the lack of dimension engendered by the works’ time constrictions. Yet, they are compositions that demonstrate a skilful aesthetic sensibility, honed and over forty-five years. Parr’s reasoning is acknowledged eloquently in the quote chosen to preface the exhibition by Theodor Adorno: ‘The ideas in a work of art are its raw materials and not its meaning’. Titles of works include Methodonized, The Robot Paints, and I Am Nervous and clearly evidence the raw materials harnessed by the artist in this instance; each title not just naming a painting but also the impact of a unique wound inflicted at a specific point in his career. From these raw ideas concepts are created and, far from dwelling on these wounds, Parr sees out this project with the unwavering ambition of moving forward once again.

Dark Cave is a demonstration of how painting can be used as a tool of personal recuperation rather than modernist catharsis. Parr is in no way attempting to exorcise the artistic concepts which materialise in the pulverisation of his body. Rather, he wishes to redefine the conceptual terms at stake in a way that renews their existence as raw ideas, reaffirming the role his body plays (as citizen and artist) within the delivery of their message. Issues relating to the situation of other bodies, whether bound within the trauma of offshore detention or of forced removal from country, or the increasing corporatisation of public space that leads to the ‘sanitisation’ of our conceptualisations of self, are as pressing as ever. Parr is not shying away from speaking once again of and to these bodies within his practice. He makes this clear in his contribution to the 2016 Sydney Biennale which is ‘very political’, a position which will no doubt also colour his retrospective at the National Gallery of Australia (2016). Until then we wait with anticipation for him to emerge from the cave’s mouth.

Mike Parr, Dark Cave, 2015. Installation view, Anna Schwartz Gallery, Melbourne. © Mike Parr. Courtesy Anna Schwartz Gallery.

Mike Parr, Encephalic Head, 2015. From the series Finding a Hole in Nature. Acrylic and red oxide on canvas, 214 x 298cm. © Mike Parr. Courtesy Anna Schwartz Gallery.

Mike Parr, The robot paints, 2015. From the series Finding a Hole in Nature. Acrylic, red oxide and charcoal on canvas, 214 x 287cm. © Mike Parr. Courtesy Anna Schwartz Gallery.

Mike Parr, Methodonized, 2015. Acrylic, enamel and charcoal on canvas, 214 x 299cm. © Mike Parr. Courtesy Anna Schwartz Gallery.