Such Stuff As Dreams Are Made On
Patricia Zinsmeister Parker at CSU

Sometimes just between sleeping and waking there are a few immeasurable moments
when everything falls apart. The logic of dream evaporates, leaving behind a strange
lace of image and texture consisting more of lacunae than fabric. Embroidered with a few
themes, a face or phrase, the whole mirage soon melts. All that lingers, and that only
briefly, is a curious intuition: perhaps anything can mean anything else, maybe meaning
itself is only a trace of an unimaginably bolder pattern -- one that is not for sale in this

Patricia Zinsmeister Parker’s paintings have always been like that, composing visual
sentences out of arbitrary, illogical, or deliberately contrary elements. You can’t diagram
a Parker. Her subjects don’t match her predicates, her nouns are likely to be far more
active than most normal verbs, while the adverbs modify nothing but themselves. The
really strange thing is the fact that they seem to make sense anyway. For decades her
audiences have watched as an array of roughly drawn objects, figures, faces, and
geometric forms slowly dissolved in a painterly bath of brushstroke and color field. After
three decades in the public eye, Parker’s solo exhibit The Great Grid in Cleveland State
University’s Gallery presents works that seem a few stages further along in that process
of gradual dissolution. Her typically abrupt transitions and near-miss syntax are still there,
but the words themselves (I mean both recognizable imagery and also the fact that in the
past Parker has often added actual words and phrases to her surfaces) have been
translated into a shorthand of roughly hewn symbols, squiggles, and patches of color.
Idioms as various as Adolph Gottlieb’s enigmatic, surrealism-inflected “Pictographs” of
the 1940’s and Keith Haring’s road sign-like system of simple figures and gestures of the
1980’s have entered into Parker’s stew of form and materials. On top of that, Parker
explores several quite different over-all “looks” in the eleven works on display. That the
whole still manages to add up to a coherent showing of fresh explorations confirms this
artist’s longstanding reputation both as innovator and rare spirit.

Two 2006 mural-sized pieces – The Birds and the Bees and The Barber Shoppe -- are
mainly drawn in black marker on sheets of paper. Two others, also from last year and
titled Doorknobs and Red Sock, are likewise assembled in a modular fashion from
rectangular units executed in gloss enamel on paper. But while the first two have a crisp,
translucent quality and are predominately black and white, or gray and cream, the others
manifest a visual vocabulary of spirals and concentric circles, arrows and knob-like
symbols, in shades of red, green, and purple; the imagery seems to float upward toward
the eye, as if from the bottom of a pond. Doorknobs especially is reminiscent of Gottlieb,
but the colors could also be a deliberate reference to another less famous painter who
Parker has admired, Ron Gorchov. His painting Palais Jamais (Who’s Afraid of Green
and Purple?) was recently displayed in an important solo exhibit of that artist’s work at
PS1 in Brooklyn, New York. Gorchov’s quietly influential career at the periphery of the
New York art scene has spanned the same three or so decades as Parker’s primarily
Midwestern career, and like her he has stubbornly carved out a place for his hand at a
frontier where intention and accident rub against each other, making canvases that can
sometimes catch fire with significance.

Obviously unafraid of green and purple, Parker has in fact never met any color she felt
intimidated by. Consider her 2006 Heads and Tails, also on view at CSU, where yellowish
green layers of enamel seem to effloresce from an underlying black, and are punctuated
by a Picasso-ish aquamarine head, a couple of bent puce oblongs, and a scalloped, kelp-
like white flutter of collage. In Doorknobs her pictographs are found, as if by rubbing or
erasure, in a compost of scrambled textures. Out of twenty paper panels, only two
actually involve green; the rest glow with pulsating juxtapositions of various shades of red
and purple. The effect is of a nocturnal vision, of signs and portents looming in the
darkness. Spirals suggest stages of a journey into the maze of the unconscious, while a
repeated figure consisting of two concentric circles is like an eye in the night, evoking a
sense of both presence and protection. In this context the knob or handle-like forms, the
source of the work’s title, speak of passageways to other places, other nights and further
revelations. Doorknob’s panels are arranged as three rows of six topped with a row of
four, so that a gap two panels wide remains open at the upper left. The work is like a wall
still under construction, or a map of a place still partly unexplored.

Parker’s biggest painting at The Great Grid also takes the biggest risks. Predominately
Yellow, first of all, isn’t anything of the kind. The semi-sculptural work is forty feet long
and built of two tiers of a total of twenty curving, shaped canvases. All are painted a
single color, and only two are yellow. There are four lavender sections, two red, two pink
and so on around the color wheel. The contrary-to-fact stance taken by the work’s title
expresses a defiance, perhaps demanding that viewers decline to pigeonhole Parker’s
oeuvre as a whole. Although it’s a site-specific work built with CSU’s large, irregular
gallery space in mind, it deliberately doesn’t fit. Undulating along the eastern wall, there’s
no vantage point in the room from which Predominately Yellow can be seen in its entirety,
except at an extreme angle. A pillar interrupts the view on the left side, a wall cuts off the
right few panels, and in general the installation creates a sense of tension between the
facts of the gallery’s architecture, and the independent, flowing motion of Parker’s piece.
None of Parker’s usual battery of techniques has been employed here, no marks,
textures, or images of any kind, no rough-hewn references to human awkwardness and
the often painful joys of creation. Instead, as she enters her seventh decade Parker
gives us an extraordinary essay on the more general condition of painting as an activity
that must outstrip expectation, leaping like fast-moving water in the artificial channels and
constraints of any supporting structure, whether canvas or gallery wall. Forming a wall of
its own across from paintings that comment on the complexity of the relationship between
substance and subject matter, Predominately Yellow is like a guide to calmer, more
fundamental conditions of art and truth, necessarily interrupted by physical limits.

[Free Times 1/24/07