Suellen Parker’s claymation figures break the mold
Artist’s subjects find their happy places in Parker’s Whitespace exhibit Letting Go
November 13, 2012
By Grace Thornton
Unrefined clay sculpture and computer-generated imagery recall the relatively tech-deficient cultures of eras past. Movies such as 1987’s A Claymation Christmas Celebration and even Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, released in 1999, now seem kitschy because of their animation’s crude feel. For the photo illustrations in Suellen Parker’s current show at Whitespace, Letting Go, the artist embraces such rudimentary techniques, photographing clay figures against intentionally amateurish computer-animated backgrounds. Parker’s simple presentation reveals a calm joy in each of her characters. Read More.
Q&A: Suellen Parker’s Manic Optimism in Letting Go at Whitespace
October 26, 2012
By Claire Maxwell
Photographer Suellen Parker, who’s also the current program coordinator for the photography department at Savannah College of Art and Design in Atlanta, has a recently opened exhibition at Whitespace Gallery entitled Letting Go. Parker’s past work, such as the characters and scenery she developed in her 2004-2006 series, Incurable, explored what it means to seek unrealistic perfection. Her primary focus was how people change and shape themselves in response to judgment and feedback from external influences. Letting Go, however, shifts its focus to how one can overcome these idealistic views formed by society by taking the time, however brief it may be, to discover one’s own identity. Read More.
The Radar Art
The Atlantan Magazine
by Felicia Feaster
Photographer Suellen Parker crafts angst and poetry from clay and a camera as part of ACP’s photo fest
On occasion, a New York Times Magazine or Discover editor will want a psychologically loaded image to accompany an article. Something suitably moody and ruminative to illustrate a story on schizophrenia or child abuse that conveys trauma, but also the complex and enigmatic ways the human mind copes. Th eir go-to girl, more often than not, is School of Visual Arts-educated Atlanta photographer, Suellen Parker. Parker will speak on October 9 about her uniquely gritty, dark photographs and exhibit her work in the Dalton Gallery group show Hello Liberty during the 10th annual image fête, Atlanta Celebrates Photography (ACP).
The 35-year-old photographer has carved a special niche in both her commercial and her fi ne art work, creating photographs that overfl ow with the subtler shadings of human experience: trauma, doubt, a desire for approval, loneliness and vanity. In 2006 she created a chilling photograph of Hansel and Gretel wandering through a foreboding storybook forest that expressed the dense, tangled emotional landscape of childhood sexual abuse for a New York Times Magazine article “A Question of Resilience.” A psychologist in New England who saw her image in the Times and ended up incorporating it into his counseling wrote to Parker, “Th ank you for keeping the darkness alive.” Parker knows what he means. “Even after you go through therapy there still is darkness. Because life is complex,” she says.
Part of the peculiar magic of Parker’s work is her process, crafting real, nuanced emotions using artifi cial, manufactured means. To create her works she fi rst sculpts a fi gure with plasteline oil-based clay, photographs it and then—via the wonders of Photoshop—paints on clothing and inserts backgrounds and facial features from other photographs. A Frankenstein hybrid of the real and the artifi cial, the fi gures embody what Freud called the “uncanny”—the creepy quality of looking human without being human.
Parker spent her formative years in the Atlanta suburbs and betrayed an early interest in tiny, malleable bodies by collecting Madame Alexander dolls. “Not ones you could play with” she cautions. She went on to graduate school at New York’s School of Visual Arts where her mentor was the “gender illusionist” and downtown drag cabaret performer Justin Bond. Parker and Bond shared an interest in how people can inhabit two worlds: a squishy, emotional, interior place and a mask-like, cautious, socially circumscribed exterior one.
Parker’s photographs embody that inside-outside quandary. In her fi rst major body of work called Incurable, Parker showed the strain and pathos involved in trying to live up to a cultural beauty standard. In Incurable her characters act out scenarios of self-improvement, balance on yoga balls and soldier through Botox injections. “Th ere’s something about plasteline,” Parker says, and its mottled, rough surface, “that lends itself to communicate the struggle or imperfection in the creation of ourselves.” In her new series, whose working title is Gender Fluid, her strange puppet-people grapple with more deep-seated issues of androgyny and sexual identity. “I’m just trying to look at the complexities of people,” says Parker, of the poetry behind her method. “I think it’s not so simple as male and female. Th ere are a lot of variations in between.”
Beauty, and It’s Other
April 19, 2008
Business Standard, New Delhi
by Bharati Chaturvedi
Suellen Parker is a multi-media acrobat. Her new show at New York’s Stux Gallery, “Incurable Still”, is proof of that. Her performances begin in the manner of an ancient sculptor using clay (a plasteline clay that never solidifies, so it can develop loose jawlines and sagging skin like the people it is shaped into), basing the figures on real people.
Then, she photographs them and throws them into a Photoshop makeover session. They are given features from images of real people and set in backgrounds created from other photographs.
Then again, using Photoshop, she paints them over. What is incredible is how seamless each process is. You don’t see the rough ends. She simply tucks and folds each end in, giving you only that one striking image with no unfinished edges.
As in her previous works, Suellen explores the imposed and willing burden of staying eternally young. No wrinkles, no lines, no ageing process – these have become our collective ambitions today. Suellen Parker unpeels the layers that build up to our obsession with beating time.
In the current series, you have diverse aspirations. A man struggling to keep his muscles rippling, bent backwards on a Bosu ball. A older, cellulitic, wobbly-legged woman sunbathing in her porch, covered in a one-piece swimsuit. She stretches like a model, instantly feeling younger (one presumes). And so on.
The artistic process bears striking similarities with the physical process of beautification we know. The massages delivered by a masseuse is akin to sculpting plasteline; the lasering away of spots and imperfections, the Botox that irons out the visual image is, after all, Photoshop real time.
While Suellen is working on her computers, hundreds are having their bodies examined on screens for cosmetic modification. While Suellen colours her “characters”, the dissatisfied scour drug stores to find their perfect make-up match; light-medium-fair. The clay-like bodies in the final works remain knotty and uneven.
They were Photoshopped, so they could have been air brushed into perfection. As lifeless photographs, at least, they could have lived their dreams. Yet, Suellen denies them this technological gratification.
She uses her skills to allow age and the natural processes that go with it to triumph over beauty technology. The ends and the means confront each other in a flash of artistic panache.
Talent Show, Atlanta
by Phil Oppenheim
Every biennial nowadays must be a meta-biennial. Curators just wouldn’t be worth their CV’s unless their shows served as referenda on, critiques of , or brickbats burled at the genre’s big issues. Biennials raise questions central to curatorial practice: how can institutions champion localism without risking provincialism? How transparent or opaque is the mediation of individual works? Should curators be invisible mediators or should they stand as artists in their own right?
Stuart Horodner, curator of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, is no exception: his meta-approach to the Atlanta Biennial was to perform an extreme makeover, borrowing the tropes of competitive television reality programs to transform a conventional regional survey into Talent Show (June 8 – August 11, 2007).
Referencing Sol Lewitt’s “Sentences on Conceptual Art.” Horodner detailed his own thesis on Talent Show, illuminating the “curatorial process of selecting works . . . (questioning) how talent operates, where it resides, who designates it.” Unfortunately, though, the intriguing idea never quite sang.
Horodner mimicked American Idol and its ilk by inviting established artists, emerging newcomers, and amateur nonartists to “compete” against one another. The gesture suggests populist democracy – after all, audiences determine which contestants win the trophy or get the hook. It can also be interpreted as an abdication of curatorial authority. Here, the amateur work, most of which would be at home among Jim Shaw’s Thrift Store Paintings albeit with less weirdo charm, rests uneasily among the more skilled works. Instead of blurring the distinction between the two camps, Horodner’s juxtaposition serves to marginalize the nonartists – casting them as the equivalent of reality show losers like William Hung, Sanjaya Malakar, and The Unknown Comic. Talent shows, especially on television, also flatten idiosyncrasy to create homogenous mediocrity – in the way that Idol, for instance, has reduced contemporary singing to mere melisma. If the goal of the Contemporary’s show is to critique or spoof such a dynamic, its parody is too subtle – at least for me.
Ultimately, the gimmick overwhelms any potential for cumulative effect, a cohesive through-line, or virtually any dialogue between or among the works. As LeWitt himself observed though, “it is difficult to bungle a good idea,” and several of Horodner’s better selections prove admirably resilient, keeping the exhibition afloat.
Charles Huntley Nelson’s installation Invisible Man 2.0, 2006-2007, successfully culminates the Afrofutur-istic themes of his already-impressive body of work. On one long wall of a rectangular room, Nelson projects a mash-up of Ralph Ellison’s novel, James Whale’s 1933 horror classic, and autobiography, set to an illbient soundscape. On the facing wall hang watercolor renderings of framegrabs from densely textured video. Distilling the vocabularies of science-fiction, cybernetics, and music video and the iconography of classic Hollywood through the artistic processes of drawing and montage, Nelson’s sophisticated work looks both backwards and forwards peeling off the bandages of a received past to reveal the promise of the individual beneath.
Jiha Moon’s two paintings mesh linear precision with amorphous fussiness to create abstract landscapes grounded in corporeal reality. Knotty tree roots counter menacing, ethereal clouds: her ink-and-acrylic works on paper over canvas combine contemporary and traditional Asian motifs, with superflat cartoonishness complementing organic indeterminacy. Her exquisite, imaginary worlds drift around the borders of Hanji paper, flowing from the concrete world of the frame into the intangible recesses of the unconscious.
Suellen Parker’s digitally doctored prints suggest Duane Hanson’s characters vacationing in Charlie White’s photographs. Parker sculpts figures out of non-drying Plasticine, and photoshops them into tableaux pieced together from a variety of found and original images. The characters’ moist, inchoate clay skin rebels against their hyperrealistic eyes and lips, which Parker transplants from real photos of actual body parts. Unlike Mary Shelley’s cobbled-together monster, though, Parker’s creatures don’t tear down castles. instead, they fit comfortably – if creepily – into the routines of average life, catching rays in a backyard, stopping for a refreshing smoke, or crunching sit-ups on an exercise ball, and becoming, well, us.
Fahamu Pecou continues his witty self-mythologizing, simultaneously assaulting and embracing the universes of hip-hop and art-world celebrity. In the painting Genuine Adrenaline, 2007, his blinged-out, stogie-smoking persona vogues on the faked cover of Look magazine. Although the Duchampian reference is appreciated, Pecou’s other prnaked magazine covers – maybe even ART PAPERS? – might have made a worthy addition to his corner of the gallery. A video mockumentary, Instant Celebrity, Just Add Water, 2007, accompanies the painting, dimensionalizing Pecou’s Diddy-does-Warhol character by showing him strutting the streets, schmoozing the glitterati, and otherwise capturing “the birth of a star.” Insinuating that the artist is the son of Marla Gibbs, a rumor-mongering member of Pecou’s entourage provides the heartiest laugh of the entire show. For the crap-culturally illiterate, the inside joke is the reference to Lenny Kravitz, the son of Roxie Roker, a star of The Jeffersons. Within or without the context of Talent Show, Pecou proved that he is, as he prefers to brand himself, The Shit.
The Wasteland? Stalking the soul of suburbia
September 20, 2007
New Haven Advocate
by Lorraine Gengo
Through Oct. 26 at Westport Arts Center, www.westportartscenter.org
There was a time in my life when all I dreamed about was ditching the sheltered, culturally deprived, lily white suburb where I was raised and trading it for my own precious little slice of Manhattan, which turned out to be a tiny cockroach-infested walk-up above a raucous gay bar and filthy Chinese takeout in Midtown. Once I had a taste of freedom, I vowed that I would never live in the ‘burbs again.
Never say never. During a 20-year period I had become an experienced urban dweller, living and working in New York, Boston, Philly, Washington, D.C., and even Baghdad. During that time, I had also experienced living in the “real” country, on an 80-acre ranch in the wilds of Northern California. But when my son was born, all that changed. Suddenly, it didn’t weird me out that I was living in a suburban tract house with a postage-stamp-size lawn that could have been E.T.’s adopted domicile.
From that slippery slope it was a relatively easy slide back to my hometown, where, I had to admit, you couldn’t beat the public schools system. People assured me that a lot had changed in 20 years—there was more to do, and more ethnic and racial diversity than there had been when I left. But what I found was the place hadn’t changed as much as my needs had. I wanted my son to grow up among his familial tribe, to attend good schools and breathe relatively clean air. I took him back to what I knew because it felt safe.
Ambivalence about one’s suburban roots is a popular topic for artists, as anyone who has read the novels of John Cheever (aka, “the Chekhov of the suburbs”) knows. In “Stalking Suburbia,” the current exhibition at Westport Arts Center, it’s the photographers who exercise their angst over the cultural wastelands of their youth. Though guest curator Lauren Ryan makes the claim in her essay for the show that much of the work in it is “neither critical nor judgmental but almost strictly observational,” I beg to differ. Any comedian will tell you that some words are inherently funny, while others are not. And “suburbia” is a derisively funny word. Choosing it as one’s subject matter automatically implies a judgment, even if the artist’s intent is to refute the stereotype.
A series of photographs by Miranda Lichtenstein subtly shook my mixed emotions, setting the tone for how I perceived the rest of the work on display. Her three untitled images were of two suburban ranches and a colonial-style house photographed at night, using only her car headlights for illumination. Viewed from the roadside through sparse woods, these homes with their lights blazing seemed at once so comforting, so safe, like coming home from school in the early dark of winter and seeing a warm house awaiting you—and yet also so isolated. Safety and an isolation that leads to desperation are the yin and yang of suburban life.
While the topography of Lichtenstein’s subjects will be very familiar to WAC patrons, Todd Hido’s six photos of suburban dwellings appear more exotic. Hido may be the original suburban night stalker. He often shoots his photos from the vantage of the driver’s seat of his car, and often through the windshield using only available light and long exposures. It’s that quality of light, and not merely the stray palm tree, that make his suburbs feel like they hail from an alternate universe. There’s a menacing intensity in the air, what Californians refer to as earthquake weather, which Hido somehow captures in his images. It was Hido’s work that inspired Ryan to curate “Stalking Suburbia,” and I can see why she found the work so compelling.
However, if there is a progenitor for suburban photography it would probably be Bill Owens, a photojournalist from California whose monograph, Suburbia, 1973, was a seminal influence on practitioners of this sub-genre. Owens, who’s almost 70, worked for an indie newspaper in Livermore, Calif., which assigned him the task of photographing the cultural life of his neighborhood. Like Flannery O’Connor, Owens has an eye for morally flawed characters. His “Cookout Couple,” a homely pair of suburbanites grilling up some dinner behind the house, are positively sinister. And the children he captures are gun-toting gamins. The most arresting photo of the seven black and white images of his on display is of a young, perhaps 7-year-old, girl holding a 007-style handgun in her left hand, its snub-nose nuzzling her right palm. She’s wearing a dowdy, ill-fitting plaid jacket with fleece lining, and her blonde hair is a wanton rat’s nest. She’s smiling, but there’s steel in her gun-moll gaze. I would have pegged her for a Belfast brat, not the issue of California suburbanites.
Not all of the photographers in this exhibit train their eyes on what’s there to see on the surface of the suburban landscape. Some, like Suellen Parker and Anthony Goicolea, delve deep into the hive of suburban life. It’s scary in there, let me tell you. In “Feastlings,” Goicolea constructs a digital tableau using multiple self-portraits of himself disguised as nine very bad boys in prissy prep-school uniforms who are in the process of pillaging a typical ’60s suburban feast of baked ham studded with pineapple rings and maraschino cherries, bowls of succotash and the like. One might assume that the punch they’ve gotten into is spiked, as one fellow has done a face plant into the lima beans, while another is about to pitch a string of sausages at his mate across the table who’s prepared to meet the fuselage with a chafer shield. Meanwhile, yet another pubescent prankster is about to catapult a spoonful of limas at the viewer, while the brat next to him spews his milk in a wide arc across the room. This is how Dali might have depicted dinnertime had he been raised in New Canaan.
Suellen Parker’s work may be known to some given the recent broad exposure her work received in a photo spread in the New York Times Magazine this past spring. Her images combine the real and unreal in a way that is singularly arresting. She starts out with an idea or image she wants to express, and begins by creating a sculpture of her subject in Plasticine. She then photographs the sculpture against a white background and loads that image into a computer, where she has amassed a library of photographed objects that the character might possess, including environments they might live in. Once all this information is available in digital form, she goes to town with it, painting in skin tones, contours and shading, integrating photos of “real” body parts as she goes. Real and unreal. Isn’t that also part of the suburban dilemma? The “real” world is dirty and crime-ridden—the mean streets of urban life. Anyone who lives in suburbia is living a protected fantasy bubble existence. Real life is always outside those parameters.
Inside Parker’s world, in “Having a Ball (Keep on Keeping On), 2006,” there’s a pudgy man working out on a blue exercise ball in his den. He’s wearing a wife-beater and shorts and he’s draped upside-down on top of the ball, stretching his back. His beady eyes follow you around the gallery. He wants to be Mr. Superfit, just like the guys in the magazines that litter the floor. It ain’t ever gonna happen, not in this lifetime. Based on the similarity of the portraits of people hanging on the wall, he isn’t much of an artist either. He’s probably a sketch-artist cop who keeps plugging away, harboring dreams of glory. The ‘burbs are filled with un-beautiful people like him, leading lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau so famously noted.
Yet I refuse to accept the idea that life in the suburbs is a life spent in limbo. There’s a hopeful note to be struck, and I found it in the work of Gail Peter Borden, the only non-photographer of the group. Borden’s installation, “24 Houses,” is an architect’s answer to Rubik’s Cube. Using hollow, painted basswood blocks in the ubiquitous two-story rectangle and pitched roof triangle shapes, Borden arranges 24 houses in a seven-foot circle. Though each structure is built from the same components, each one is assembled differently, appearing unique among the other structures in the circle. Thus, in toying with the cookie-cutter archetype of suburban architecture, Borden speaks to the variety of what one can do with a rectangle and a triangle.
I guess boring is as boring does, whether it’s in suburbia or in the “real” world.
February 23, 2007
The New York Blade
by Raphael Risemberg
Nowadays, especially with the advent of the digital arts, it is not uncommon for artists to work in more than one media.
But rarely does an artist mix three media as seamlessly and potently, while making it look deceptively easy, as does lesbian artist Suellen Parker, currently exhibiting her combination of sculpture, photography and computer art at Daniel Cooney Fine Art in Chelsea.
Parker begins by constructing human figures out of Plasticine, a putty-like modeling material. She photographs them digitally, then uses Photoshop to add color and attach design. The background images are derived from the Internet, and the finishing touch comes from layering photos of eyes and lips onto the characters, lending an uncanny reality.
But this exhibit of photos is more than just a technical tour de force—it consists of psychologically rich scenarios centered on the themes of health and body image.
For instance, the photo titled “Uplifting Smoke” shows a nicely coiffed woman sitting on the steps of a house, looking into her compact mirror. Amusingly, the smoke from her cigarette highlights a sign near the door identifying the building as a “Wellness Center” (we can all relate to this contradiction). The façade of the building, including vegetative landscaping, so skillfully appropriates photographic images to simulate three dimensions that it appears sculpted from the putty, though it is not.
The work titled “Life Preserver” consists of an older woman in a bikini, showing off her figure on the beach. However, it is clear that the scene is an elaborate sham, because she is really standing before a large photo of a beach (a photo within a photo) propped up against a wall. Here, and in a similar piece “Well Done,” which depicts another elderly woman sunbathing, the Plasticine’s lumpy effect makes it the ideal material to express the deterioration of aging. And yet the subjects’ dignity comes through, as self-deluded as it is.
The young do not escape Parker’s focus either. In “Awkward Stage,” an emaciated teenage girl stands in front of a wall, as gangly and unstable as a newborn fawn. The artist humanizes this frail subject so that her anorexia is but one facet of her persona. Nearby is a section of what looks like a pulpit—could Parker be linking religion to issues around physical and mental health?
A couple of scenarios are a bit too expected, such as one in which a man undergoes a Botox injection. But the artist redeems herself with an intriguing image of a salon worker whose job it is to remove unsightly body hair. Her look is vacant, as would be expected from anyone who toils day in, day out performing such a fundamentally absurd task.
Then there is the radiant-looking motivational speaker, who seems to be conning himself as much as others. This piece made me most appreciate Suellen Parker’s use of the malleable Plasticine as the perfect metaphor for the exhibit’s overall theme: all-too-easy and almost certainly short-lived personal change.
by Felicia Feaster
It’s an ironic feature of contemporary photography. The harder the genre works to convince skeptics that it is a legitimate art form — the equal of painting or sculpture — the further away it gets from even being classifiable as pure photography. Read More.