In Michael Ondaatje’s recent novel In the Skin of the Lion, the author uses the phrase “To locate the evils and find the hidden purity” in reference to the work of photographer Lewis Hine. The specific works recalled were Hine’s pivotal images of children toiling in mills and factories. The atrocious working conditions and long enduring hours under which these children labored for pennies were the obvious evils. The purity remained more allusive. The easiest notion of purity in these photographs is within the faces of the children, exploited and abused but still expressive of the innocence of youth, as opposed to the hardened personas of the elder factory workers the children resembled in spirit. The powerful sense of purity managed by these images is not encased within the boundaries of the final print, but extended to the larger truth of realization and outrage that these images produced within the public. This realization was so complete and the outrage so strong that the laws were quickly passed governing child labor.
It may seem like a giant leap from the dramatic documentary images Of Lewis Hine to the willfully expressive work of William E. Parker, but the sense of evil and purity that pervades Hine’s work rumbles within Parker’s recent work. His images evoke the desire to understand fearful taboos and embrace the complexities of the human spirit while extending the passion of the intellect beyond the confines of the photograph.
In each of the three series represented in this exhibition, Tattoo/Stigmata, Marvels of the West, and Der wilde Mann, Parker uses the male nude as a starting point and at various times applies oil emulsion, aqua media, wax crayon and graphite to the image, creating works that simultaneously force us to examine ourselves in the context of long forgotten modes of thinking while we are surrounded by the current confused atmosphere of sexual representation and practices.
A grand orator and iconoclastic thinker, Parker describes his work and his intentions best in the following statement:
The figures in the Tattoo/Stigmata series reflect gestures, postures and iconography apparent in the history of painting and sculpture, such as ithyphallic representations of the male body evident in Pompeian, Greco-Roman and Egypt-Roman art; Medieval and Renaissance statuary; early paintings and drawings defining shrouded figures such as Lazarus or Christ, stigmata themes and classicizing representations of the male form. Each work in the series is a black and white silver print, overpainted by hand with oil-emulsion, this each work is unique and non-repeatable.
Stemming from my reaction to issues announced by John Berger, British write and critic, particularly as evidenced in Bergaer’s The Moment of Cubism (1969), The Look of Things (1971), Ways of Seeing (1972) and About Looking (1980), wherein he suggests that throughout the history of post-Medieval Western Art the female nude is typically defined as “object, property and surveyed presence,” as a subject representing primary exploitation by a masculine sighting consciousness, the Tattoo/Stigmata series represents the male figure in visual circumstances no less candid or vulnerable. The figures are iconically represented, gesturally posed and amplified by hand-applied oil color to connote the renascence of an eros, an emphatic corporeality and sensuality the make body once shared with that of the female, an eros that in recent centuries, despite covert or academic evidences, has been denied or assiduously avoided in images of the male nude.
Extending from the Tattoo/Stigmata series, are the works in the series known by the title: Marvels of the West. These photographs, represented in modular form and, again, emphasizing images of the male nude, consist of from 30 to 90 Polaroid SX-70 images organized within a single frame. The multiple prints of these works are often anecdotally progressive in narrative structure, imbued with either natural or filter- assisted “invented” chromatic identity, and arranged within the frame to configure mandaloid or other types of geometricized patterns. They are studies for large-scale installation pieces which consist of multiple 8x8 inch silver prints overpainted by hand. These installation studies, initial explorations in Der wilde Mann (The Wild Man) series, declare or implicate certain mythological, legendary, and art historical themes associated with the identification of the “primordial male.” Among the varied iconographic attentions evidenced in the work are male-female postural paradigms and their reversals, images implying a need for males to devalue logos orientations in both psychic and physical planes, and the search for “tools for proper work” leading away from mind toward the juncture of phallus and heart, toward an instinctual energy that can reengage eros and feeling as prime animating and healing forces.
The most recent works in Der wilde Mann series, feature grand scale black and white silver prints defining male portrait-heads hand colored with oil, aqua media, wax crayon, and graphite. This series of portraits identifies varied aspects of human temperament founded in historical studies on physiognomy and expression as a measure of psychic identity and types of character. These contemporary portraits identify varied aspects of temperament (such as the choleric, melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic, demoniacal, contemplative, defiant) associated in premodern periods with ritualistic and sacred psychic states. This series has been influenced by Mircea Eliade’s text, The Sacred and the Profane, in which he states that “it s enough to observe that desacralization pervades the entire experience of the nonreligious man of modern societies and that, in consequences, he finds it increasingly difficult to rediscover the existential dimensions of religious man in the archaic societies.” Following Eliade’s thesis, each of Der wilde Mann portrait heads attempts to bring renascence a homo religious defined through a temperament “spoke” visually by the masculine persona.”
In order to reach new height of awareness and understanding of the human condition we often must look back to examples of wisdom that have stood the test of time. We must not reinvent those ideas but look at them through the eyes of contemporary experience to allow modern moral and spiritual practices to resound with vintage wisdom. That marriage of classic wisdom and modern commentary is the essence of the powerful spirit and unique expression in William E. Parker’s work.
Director, Light Work