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"IT" Is Not What You Think

By Margaret Regan

MAY 3, 1999:  SO YOU GO to Elizabeth Cherry Contemporary Art, a cutting-edge arts oasis on get-down-and-dirty Grant Road, jammed in between cheapo furniture stores, grimy car parts emporia and fast-food joints.

You look around the gallery. You must have arrived too early, before the show has been installed. The only thing in the main room is an impromptu work table, a stretch of rough plywood set on a pair of sawhorses. On top are two black piles, black, sleek and shiny. Garbage bags, you guess, used in the clean-up after the last show. Must be some gunk in them too, because they're tied up tightly with strips of gray duct tape.

Dang, you think. No art. I must have read the dates wrong on the announcement. What am I going to do for a story now?

But affable proprietor Elizabeth Cherry is acting perfectly normally, as though you're here to inspect the art. No apologies about the show not being ready. Slowly the truth dawns. This IS the art. This room is IT, the work of Steven Parrino, painter, photographer, New York rocker, darling of the European avant-garde. The black things are not garbage bags at all, but black painted canvases that have been wrenched from their moorings, battered, creased, and wrestled down with duct tape. Murky silicon--kind of like solid translucent glue--spreads its tentacles across the black things. Positioned among their peaks and swerves and crevices are a few monster-movie eyeballs.

The paintings, you have to admit, do have a rather nice three-dimensional shape, and a carefully controlled palette of black, gray and red (the eyeballs account for the red). You're starting to catch on to Parrino's pop-culture sensibility, his mangled clash of painting, punk and horror. But you're certainly not going to let on to your backwater ignorance to Cherry. You do mention, casually as can be, that you were expecting photography. She points out that Parrino does indeed do photography; he even had some photographic work in the gallery's last exhibition, a group Photography Salon. And this show has some Parrino drawings, too, which you didn't see at first. They're displayed in frames, around the bend, in the office.

According to Cherry, who had a small part in creating them, the drawings started out as monochromatic paintings, each endowed with one of those monster eyes. (In an artist's statement, which you read belatedly, Parrino declares that "modern art, i.e., Picasso, always looked like a mass of paint with an eye looking back at the viewer.") Parrino photographed his paintings; then Cherry scanned the photos into her computer. Acting at the artist's direction, she made high-resolution laser prints that exaggerated the black and white fields. Then Parrino gave the prints the same violent treatment he doles out to his paintings.

They've been folded, rumpled, dripped with silicon and given a charming sprinkling of glitter, in punk-rock red and purple. The five drawings, with names like "IT Drawing #1" and "#2," look like archaeological fragments from punk club walls, circa 1980, all spit and black paint and shiny brights.

The comparison is very much to the point. A native New Yorker, Parrino trained at New York's Parsons School of Design in the early '80s. Like a lot of New York art-school students and newly hatched painters at the time, Parrino moved easily between the art and music scenes. Cherry says he had a band called The Process, which counted among its members a musician from the much-esteemed Reverb Motherfuckers.

"They're very hardcore," Cherry says, and indeed in a Tucson show a year-and-a-half ago, they succeeded in emptying out the Airport Lounge. (Later, she adds, some true believers arrived and rocked out appropriately.)

The reverb music shows up in IT, too, via a one-hour-long Parrino video. A VCR is suspended above the plywood table, and when Cherry turns it on, you can see the artist bent over a pair of electric guitars. Again and again, he drags the strings of one guitar over the strings of the other. Both guitars are amplified, and they emit ear-splitting feedback. You listen to it politely--you have your professional responsibilities to attend to, after all--and you last about five minutes. OK, got it, you announce, cool as a cucumber, and Cherry obligingly shuts the video down.

Now you get back to those sculptural paintings, without benefit of reverb. Parrino initially made a name for himself as a monochromatic painter, turning out flat canvases in fields of black or red, and exhibiting them in Europe--in London, Paris, Nice and Cologne--as well as in New York. After a while he tired of the flatness of the painting surface, and liberated the canvas from the stretcher frames. Judging by pictures in art magazines in the ECCA office, the first of these new-style works were still rather sedate: the rumpled and rippled canvases pushed toward the third dimension, but they were still pinned to the gallery wall.

What we have here in IT is a logical conclusion to the Parrino investigations. Parrino calls the new works a "weird re-mix of Pollack, Chamberlain, Guston, Big Daddy Roth, Von Dutch, Warhol, Iggy and the Stooges." Like these other art rebels, Parrino defies art's rules, in this case the easel convention. His black paintings will never again be stuck on a wall. Why should they, when their surfaces roll and roil, shimmy and shake? With their phony eyeballs, red veins and shining black, they're art meets rock-and-roll, art meets the movies, art meets pop.

And you can see them too, right in the art gallery whose ironic geography pulls off a similar trick, exhibiting the outré amidst the funk populism of Grant Road.

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