Mike Parr

City Art Gallery

Mike Parr first achieved notoriety in the early ’70s as a performance artist whose works involved tests of endurance and self-mutilation. Though the themes now seem familiar, the way Parr explored his relationship with an audience––shocking or trapping them into an often brutal complicity––had considerable impact. In one performance, the loss of innocence was equated with the artist’s childhood loss of an arm. Parr exorcised that trauma by hacking off an imitation limb before a horrified audience. For the last few years Parr has been creating a voluminous series of self-portraits, drawn on huge sheets of paper; the artist characteristically presents himself as twisted, bent, and anamorphically distorted. Parr has by now achieved remarkable fluency and dexterity; he seems able to draw himself in any way he wishes. Over the last 12 months, he has collaborated with printer John Loane on several suites of outsized etchings and woodblocks; these were the works on show here.

The implication of Parr’s exclusive commitment to this project, and of his endless recapitulation of one aging face, has been to establish the imaginative existence of this persistent image, independent of its referent. In most of these prints, there is little sense of chiaroscuro, despite a luminous plate tone. The fragile resemblances and sense of theatrical performance suggest that Parr is now calculating the way his self-portraits live in his own mind; he seems to be mapping his imagination through the mediating agency of his face. The marks appear hesitant, inelegant, and sometimes extraordinarily savage; rather than perform their usual descriptive function, his lines tend to convey mostly information about the overall phantasmagoric atmosphere. I think many critics have underestimated Parr’s disinterest in identity, just as they have overestimated the importance of an acquaintance with Jacques Lacan’s thought as a key to understanding these works. His faces have been seen as enactments of the fear felt during the moment of discovery, when the self is first perceived. We should, though, recall Parr’s performance origins, in order to make sense of the impression left of an actor presenting a series of impersonations.

One of Parr’s series of etchings is titled “Eye to Eye (The Rembrandt Self Portrait),” 1989. Why the reference to the great Dutch painter? We know that Rembrandt may have supervised versions of his self-portraits by other hands. This could be the answer, and an insight into Parr’s intentions. In spite of the countless faces surveyed here, real curiosity is hard to find. Instead, we are continually embarrassed by Parr’s answering scrutiny, so that attention finally focuses a few inches in front of the image. In his portraits, Parr surveys his own image with bias and extreme self-consciousness. The face we scrutinize is the one he has us see. Parr comes across as so aloof in these prints that we wonder if he can ever have spoken directly.

Charles Green