Even before you enter the gallery, you hear Mike Parr breathing. His breath is neither relaxed nor comfortable; amplified beyond human means, you cannot mistake its sharp, strained quality. Its constant gulp and whistle will accompany you throughout your tour, needling, almost persecutory.
Parr’s work is always discomforting, not least for himself. 100 Breaths, the video-performance responsible for the unsettling sounds, is on a continuous loop upstairs. In it, Parr sucks one self-portrait after another onto his face, becoming more and more deranged with each inhalation. In a vitrine close by you can see Parr’s own dried blood, which, mixed with ochre, stains the surface of a bunch of self-portraits. These turn out to be the traces of a performance in which he sliced open the sole of one foot, then walked over a paper carpet composed of images of his own faces.
Elsewhere, you can see the Introjection of a Horse (2002), a huge tormented woodcut whose heavy slashing lines crush the eponymous animal into a rat’s nest of knots. Or there’s the even larger The Rest of Time (In Memory of My Father, Geoffrey Edwin Parr, 1909–1998) (1998), a 16-panel tour de force of intaglio techniques pinned directly onto the gallery wall. Its scrawls and scratches describe weird traps and implements of torture, impacted physiognomies and knotted cages. Overbearing colours split the work in two, a heavy mustard-gas wash to the left, thin gloomy blues to the right, while, on the bottom right, a lone panel escapes untainted.
In a famous letter, the adolescent Rimbaud declared the need for the artist to submit to a “long, immense and rational disordering of all the senses”. Parr is clearly a subscriber to this view: he favours ‘limit situations’, where everything – including one’s own body – is put on the line. His energy is overwhelming. For over thirty-five years he has been slashing, burning, branding, slaughtering, sewing and scratching his way through a colossal number of performances, films, installations, drawings and prints.
If anything holds this mass of diverse works together it is self-portraiture. Yet, as Parr remarked to the critic Elizabeth Fortescue, traditional self-portraiture has become “just a territory or a carapace or a convention, which is worthless in my view”. Against this, Parr typically mismatches, distorts and destroys his own face in his work. This enthusiasm for auto-disfiguration is, self-confessedly, linked to a physical disability. The art historian David Bromfield quotes Parr as saying: “To be born with one arm is to suffer an incomplete gestalt … to see this incompletion always reflected in others’ eyes.” Whatever the aetiology of Parr’s creative drives, there’s no question that his stump plays a decisive role: as inspiration, as subject, as actor and as emblem. You might find it emerging from what Graham Coulter-Smith calls a “chaos of foul-bite”, like a primal deity from the swamp of nothingness; or disappeared behind inscrutable smears on the plate, like a deus absconditus.
Volte Face is an exhibition of “prints and re-prints”. Parr first got involved in printmaking when master printer John Loane – then in charge of the Victorian Print Workshop – invited him to contribute to a portfolio for the Bicentennial. Loane says he wrote to Parr because he liked Parr’s drawings, and was convinced they’d work well transplanted into the realm of acid, burin and plate. Map (1987) was one early result of that request. Floating in infinite space, Parr’s severed head finds itself anamorphically deformed behind a shivering grid, its features described by innumerable tiny lines like coils of pubic hair. Over twenty years later, Parr and Loane are still working together.
Parr is an aficionado of restrained antagonisms, which recur in his practice at every level, from splittings internal to the images themselves, to the placement of works in the gallery. He says the works in this show were hung as “ripostes” to each other. Here the monumental faces off against the intimate, the line against the smear, the judge against the misdemeanour. Pieces are framed or pinned, corralled under glass, or aggressively coupled. Gaps are exacerbated through disharmonious colour-shifts, through marks that don’t quite follow, through derangements of scale and frame and content.
Yet it’s possible to overemphasise the strongman aspect of Parr’s work. Every curator, critic and artist I spoke to agreed that Parr also evinces “an incredible delicacy of touch”. It is evident throughout, subtle and meticulous, in these faces composed of innumerable tiny fractures, burrs and crosshatchings. And let’s not overlook his humour: I’m still not sure why, but I find titles like Alphabet/Haemorrhage and Bridal I-Ching (Jesus Comes Back as Climate Change) hilarious.
None of Parr’s works can be considered representative, precisely because he is pursuing a project that implicates its predecessors and descendents at once. Instead he explores the diverse powers of repetition. The magnificent series Rat into Eye (2005), for instance, is a veritable résumé of techniques (drypoint, acquatint, linocut, pencil and charcoal), marks (scars, scores, scribbles, punctures), and figures (variously deformed Parrs, horses, and the rat of the title). Loane dryly referred to one visage hideously marred by black pustules as “a bad case of drypointitis”.
In response to a review by Elwyn Lynn in the Australian, Parr once protested that his works were “far more accessible than [Lynn] would lead his readers to believe”. The great English art critic Peter Fuller later brayed, “Parr’s work is simply too unpleasant to describe in any detail.” Committed to an entirely different tradition – a conservative interpretation of nineteenth-century English aestheticism – Fuller at least had the decency to nominate a powerful enemy when he saw one. Recently, Parr has been denounced by other conservative critics, less decent, less intelligent, way more boring and timid than Fuller. If such critics are right about nothing else, they at least make this clear: Parr’s work forces you to take sides.
How? First, for reasons of good old-fashioned squeamishness. What do you make of someone who can happily nail his arm to a wall, sew up his face, slash and brand his skin, or have his shoulder bitten by a friend until he nearly faints from the pain? A kind of radical asceticism is in play. As the mad poet Friedrich Hölderlin once wrote, “at the extreme limits of pain, nothing remains but the pure conditions of time and space.” This is why Parr can legitimately call his performances “anti-theatrical”. Always done free, they make it impossible for an audience “to ask for their money back”. In Volte Face, this aspect of Parr’s work is explicitly represented by 100 Breaths and by the footprints of his own blood. Nonetheless, it is implied throughout: blood and bone pulse through each printed line and stain.
Secondly, for reasons of conceptual complexity. What do you make of someone who can happily move between such thinkers as Reich, Marcuse and Lacan, and everywhere alludes to Wittgenstein and Freud? Parr has never apologised for nor given way on his intellectual fidelities; an anomaly in the Australian art world, where theory can be high as long as it’s thin, and where artists scrabble for newly discounted thinkers like punters at a Boxing Day sale. Parr mobilises psychoanalysis to help him bind the cerebral to the physical, the aesthetic to the political. It provides him with problems on which he can operate, and subjects on which to experiment. Reich, for example, inspired the question: “So there’s something lodged within the body, how do we find this thing?”
Thirdly, for reasons of aesthetic density. What do you make of someone whose merest scribble opens an abyss of complexity? What initially may look like a Babel of scored lines will resolve into a rat or an eye; and where a face once was, a crushed fist may come to be. One curator, Maria Zagala, remarked to me, “Just looking at his work takes so much effort.” Her only comparable experience involved examining over a thousand Piranesi prints: both artists share an enthusiasm for extraordinary details, for psychological intensity, for constantly varying and renovating their techniques.
The word “theory” derives from the ancient Greek theoros, meaning “spectator”. In the labour it takes and the assault it makes on its would-be spectators, Parr’s art is anti-theoretical: he forces you to become either more or less than a simple regardeur. Parr accomplishes this by going through, not against, theory and theatre. I cannot think of another Australian artist who does this in so powerful and singular a fashion. What the critic Pierre Macherey once said of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé can be extended to Parr: he “is not hermetic, in the sense of a well-hidden secret that ought to be found out; he is only difficult because, as an essential artist, he is a producer of enigmas that elicit thought.”
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