Los Angeles

Ray Parker

Molly Barnes Gallery

I admit a prejudice in favor of Ray Parker; many second-line abstractionists, excellent artists, suffered from the presence of the heavies like de Kooning and Kline and the funnel-focus of “serious” art in the late fifties. Some, like Al Leslie, switched styles and survived on the market; others, like Norman Bluhm, stuck maniacally to the heaving about of paint. Parker, like Robert Goodnough, happened to find an open spot within Abstract Expressionism and homesteaded it (in Parker’s case, the tract lies between Rothko and Gottlieb). Although, as students, we had a hunch there was something pretty middle-class and safe about them, we could recognize a Parker on first glance and generally liked its ability to reconcile avant-garde painting with the design pronouncements of our professors.

His new show is a strange affair: thirteen oil paintings, ranging from two by three feet to four-and-a-half by seven, are somewhat anachronistic in appearance. The fat, torn-edge “blobs” have, except in one picture, been replaced by smooth-edge, directional shapes, reminiscent of Matisse cutouts and reliefs; Parker’s usual crisp, emblematic colors are now somewhat soured and seemingly permeated with yellow. One new device has been added: a margin of “blank” (beige) canvas which is broken by shapes, enforcing the over-under quality (fairly autre these days) of the graphics.

The overall feeling is one of insistence on the difficulty of making good paintings; in this case the acknowledged problems are 1) painting in oil in the first place (perhaps to avoid as much crispness as possible, so easy in a simplistic format), 2) painting small, “normal”-sized canvases, and 3) painting unadulterated color-shape arrangements. Parker succeeds—but not to the point he’d like. The classical-modern shapes trapeze about the surface to overcome allusions to previous artists, but they don’t do anything more than that. They’re satisfied to be soldiers in the Maginot Line of figure-ground “balancing” and “clashing” of colors. Even in the biggest, best picture the most salient quality is the know-how in making tube orange look like customized manna from heaven. What's needed is some attempt, however vague and tiny, to redefine once again the business of painting.

Peter Plagens