Conversation with Nicole Parker
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Conversation with Nicole Parker
by Elizabeth Johnson, edited by Matthew Crain
Here, Half A World Away
Here, Half A World Away, 44” x 44” (Arch), Oil On Panel
Elizabeth Johnson: You say in your Gross McCleaf Artist Statement that you are fascinated with a sense of "between-ness" and of “feeling nowhere and everywhere at once." How have you come to inhabit a disassociated, mystical, or quiet point of view? Do your unconscious and daydreams influence your art?
Nicole Parker: You hit the nail on the head with disassociated. I would also add liminal: being suspended in a transitional state or positioned at or on both sides of a boundary or threshold, such as between the past and present, between waking and sleeping. I think about standing on a beach with one foot in the sand and the other in the water, or in a doorway with clear views of two rooms without stepping into either space. I love liminal because of how well it expresses a concept that’s followed me throughout my life. My images are symbolic and reflective of my worldview and sense of self, and how I grew up. My household was very eclectic and full of different influences; I have Korean heritage, but my family’s collective cultural identity is ambiguous and very hard to name and identify. I’ve gone through many levels of understanding this small part of myself, and although I have a strong sense of self, it’s difficult to explain verbally to others. My work is not about my cultural identity; instead, it represents the way that my upbringing has taught me to see and understand.
NP: The world is not black and white, everything is multifaceted and full of quiet stories and ideas that weave between categories, and I choose imagery and stories that reflect this philosophy. My unconscious and daydreams influence my work. Dreams play a huge part in my work and process.
I dream often––and vividly––and realize that some dreams influence my perception as much as memories of waking events. I love to render realistically and will always find ways to do it, but my practice is drifting further away from observation and more into imagined, symbolic, and allegorical scenes.
EJ: In your Statement you mention that you're "greatly enriched and influenced by sensory sources like music, language, film, and food” and that in the studio you “work from memory and observation in tandem." I relish the theatrical drama of 3:36 and Are We Lost? for their lonely, late-night beauty. What gave rise to these two landscapes?
NP: Sensory experiences are the driving force behind almost all my work. My work is about memory, and sometimes the things I remember most strongly are sounds, smells, general colors, or light atmospheres...
NP: I have a strong psychological/visual association between colors and sounds, one always evokes the other. I think because of this, sounds get attached to my visual memories. Both these landscapes were based on a memory of an activity rather than a specific event or place. The details are literally fuzzy and foggy. When I think of walks I used to take with my sister and my dog when I was young, I remember snow, houses in the dark, and stories my sister told me. When I think of driving, I think of white noise, headlights, taillights. Many of the pieces in the show, but especially these two, are also influenced by certain songs or types of music. 3:36 is named for a track on Andrew Bird’s album Norman, which is the soundtrack to a film of the same name. I loved this album as a teen and still listen to it a lot. That track has always sounded brown and rusty.
EJ: You say in your Statement, "I'm most attracted to the odd and quiet moments of everyday life in a world that is large and loud." Does shielding yourself from sonic irritations balance your ability to modulate them? Do you work from your own photos or film stills? Do you seldom include figures because you favor solitude? Do you like imagining bodiless vision?
NP: “Shielding yourself” has revealed something insightful. I was trained as an observational painter and am prone to “copying”, that is, letting the reference source rule the painting more than my own eye and hand. I experimented a lot with this in school, and it gradually led to breaking free from my reference material. I avoid direct photo references because it doesn’t make sense to paint something that’s already an art piece, especially someone else’s. Photos also have their own specific light quality that doesn’t always reflect real life. But because I’m usually rendering things that aren’t right in front of me or are nonexistent, I do need some sort of visual reference. When I’m in the environment I want to paint, I sit and stare for a long time and take lots of visual and mental notes. Lately, I hop on Google Images to look for imperfect photo references (“imperfect” meaning close to but not exactly what I’m looking for). I use this to develop a “memory bank” of how things look and behave, rather than to replicate a specific image. For example, I don’t have access to sheep, so I googled things like “sheep backlit” and “sheep on a hill” when researching for The Sentinels. I sketched the images I found and made mental notes about how wool behaves and the face structure and ear placement, etc.
NP: It’s funny you mention film stills. Film has a much greater influence on my work than photography. I watch a lot of movies and get tons of inspiration from certain cinematographers and how film compositions are set, lit, and staged. I used to want to be a figurative painter, but then I realized what interests me and is most memorable and impactful are places and things.
To me, the figure is both too ambiguous and too targeted. I have a hard time separating the body from the individual, but I don’t think the body always tells us everything we need to know. My body doesn’t describe me fully, but my memories and experiences do.
When I remember an event or even when I’m dreaming, I never see myself. My body is almost outside of my own perception, so it doesn’t interest me anymore to include it.
EJ: Your paintings and prints approach subjects sparely, deliberately, or minimally, blocking out distraction. I think of horror films when music swells before something terrible happens; dreams where we don't see what we fear but sense its presence; obscure fantasies that are easier expressed in images than in words. When your painting is going well, do you feel simultaneously inside and outside as you are working? For instance, in Bedtime are you on both sides of the door?
NP: I love that horror film analogy! I do often leave things ambiguous, or limit the field of view intentionally, partly because I like the aesthetic and the symbolism, and because this mimics memories and dreams. Memories are unreliable, parts slip away. Same with dreams: they begin slipping away from the moment we’re awake. They leave us with questions. I think it’s a good sign when I feel both inside and outside a painting. It means I’m conveying the atmosphere in my mind and capturing my memory well.
EJ: Dramatic pauses structure the action in Ghost Stories, Neighborhood Watch, and The Sentinels, all pieces that depict animals watching invisible humans. Do you intend the animals to mirror humanity? To me, they feel both self-realized and vulnerable. Do you have a range of uses for animals as subjects?
NP: I’m not interested in human figures anymore, but I will always love painting animals. I do think they mirror humanity somewhat but are less inhibited and easier to interpret. Deer fascinate me.
They’re not dangerous, but sometimes their presence can feel unsettling because when I notice them, I realize they’ve already been watching me.
In Neil Gaiman’s book Coraline, a cat character is asked its name and says something to the effect of “cats don’t need names because we know who we are,”. I love this line and think it says something insightful about animals versus people. I use animals symbolically: seeing certain types makes me feel certain ways, so I use them to convey that emotion.
Dogs mean something familiar or missed. Deer represent something omniscient and maybe unsettling but not menacing––they ask questions they already know the answer to. Toads are academic. Birds are chaotic and sometimes volatile.
EJ: Stardust feels like a departure from using vehicles, animals, light effects, and houses as subjects that represent or mirror human consciousness. Did you aim to present a single moment where human presence is diffuse or optional?
NP: Although I’ve been shying away from observational painting, much of my life has been about observation and the ritual of sitting and looking. Stardust and its partner pieces are the only somewhat observational pieces in the show. They’re lighthearted and return to my childhood way of being and seeing. The whole show is about returning and revisiting, but these do that in a more explicit way. When I was little, I used to spend a lot of time in the yard, low down on the ground playing games or examining things quietly.
I always imagined what things would seem like if I were seeing them for the very first time. I imagined that, without knowing what things were already, I’d see them as something else (yellow flowers become stardust in the night sky) or just shapes and colors that puzzle themselves together. This game I played, just sitting and taking in something small, was very meditative, and the process was too.
EJ: Bedtime and Breakfast elicit thankfulness for safety, a cozy home, and memories of childhood. Were these pieces influenced by the COVID lockdown? Would you say you respond to landscapes differently than to interiors? Were these pieces rendered from photos? Do you approach light effects directly in paint or work up drawings first?
NP: You nailed it! They were both memories of something cozy and comfortable, lots of warm sensations and weak light. They were both planned out during the height of COVID lockdown, though Breakfast wasn’t finished until later. I think of landscapes and interiors similarly: it’s always about the flavor of the light and the air. I like interiors because they usually involve more defined shadows, which take on their own personalities. I like shadows because they’re essentially little echoes or memories of something else that show up in an imperfect way. They are also so fleeting. These days I do very little drawing or sketching. If whatever I’m painting involves some structure or precision, like architectural details, I draw it first in colored pencil straight onto my panel, but for light effects and things with soft edges, I make it up as I go. Vague color studies and written notes about colors help convey what I want to convey. For example, there’s a note on my phone: “the sky today is like peachy mustardy with Wedgewood blue at the horizon, try titanium white, Indian yellow, Pyrrole orange, black.”
EJ: The aquatint Hideaway combines domesticity with being outdoors. Looking at it, I feel the undertow of current media coverage about migration, and people losing their homes to climate change, added to the instinct to isolate for safety, fear, or apathy. Does printmaking lend itself to one way of exploring a subject and painting another? Or do you explore similar subjects in each?
NP: I like that take on Hideaway. During COVID there were many conversations about nature “reclaiming” certain spaces, and the idea of a house turning into a tree, or vise-versa, was a little funny to me. I grew up reading folktales and fairy tales, and there’s a fable aspect to this image. Sometimes during lockdown, I reverted to childhood habits, intentionally or not, and one of these was just sitting and looking closely. It’s a systematic and repetitive ritual, which I really felt as I was drawing every single little leaf with my etching needle.
Printmaking is all about the process, because it takes so long to build the plate before I get to print it. I’m always exploring the same or similar ideas and subjects regardless of the medium, but printmaking lets me focus on the process and ponder how it’s tied to the concept or symbolism of the image itself.
NP: Painting used to be more of a means to an end, but a professor once told me that I paint like a printmaker, and that completely changed my view of my process. Lately I’ve been noticing how I paint and what my knowledge about the process can add to the interpretation of the work.
There are many pieces in this show that involve repetitive, intricate movements bordering on tedious/maddening, which I’m realizing reflects the emotions I want to convey about the piece. One of my newest pieces of a giant lawn around a tiny house illustrates this best: it’s basically just grass forever.
EJ: Where will your exploration take you in the next few years? Are there topics that you are thinking about a lot now that may arise in your work later?
NP: Memory and visual perception will always have a heavy hand in my subject matter, but I’m focusing more on the physical house as an allegorical self-portrait. I used to consider myself a pretty straightforward landscape painter, but really, I’m interested in place and space.
NP: My images are symbolic and don’t always reflect an actual place, but are visual placeholders for an idea, emotion, or story. Many pieces in this show are about the last house I lived in, and my state of mind living there. My memories have always been strongly attached to location. I’ve been building small-scale models of houses or rooms I’ve lived in, which arose out of needing reference material to depict inaccessible spaces. Initially, they were a means to an end, but now I think that they hold more significance, perhaps because they’re built according to how I remember them. I think this upcoming show will be titled Folklore because what I’m working on now is dealing with my past personal narrative.
But like folktales, which are constantly evolving over time, most of my images are iterations of iterations. Our visual memory works the same way, and so does my process of making an image.
edited by Matthew Crain
November 16 - December 23
Nicole Parker is currently based in Maryland. She received her BFA and Certificate from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in 2018. During her time at PAFA, she was a recipient of the Richard C. Von Hess Memorial Travel Scholarship, which allowed her a month of travel in Germany, the United Kingdom, and Iceland to explore individual artistic pursuits of her choosing.
After graduating and completing her overseas travel, she had her first large solo exhibition at the Rouse Company Foundation Gallery at Howard Community College in Maryland, where she previously studied during high school. She had her first Philadelphia exhibition in 2021 at Gross McCleaf where she is represented.
Nicole has also enjoyed making work and learning from other artists at Pyramid Atlantic Art Center in Hyattsville, Maryland, where she was previously an Artist in Residence, and is now a Printmaking Associate. She has exhibited her paintings and prints in numerous group exhibitions along the East Coast, including in Pennsylvania, Maryland and New York.