Catalog essay by David Pagel
You don’t need to talk to R. Nelson Parrish for very long to discover that he loves two things in life: barreling down mountainsides at breakneck speeds and making paintings that capture those magical moments when our perceptions of the world are especially vivid—so intense, stunning, and powerful that the rest of life does not pale in comparison so much as it seems to be a point of entry into mind-blowing highlights that make it all matter.
Love must be mentioned at the start because it distinguishes Parrish’s art from much of what’s out there, particularly in terms of what makes the headlines or appears in magazines. Snarky cynicism and know-it-all condescension play a large part of what passes for contemporary discourse, both in the art world and the world at large, where public discussions seem to be increasingly driven by anger, disdain, even hatred. In contrast, Parrish’s deliciously physical abstractions start with positive passions. Rather than pointing fingers or acting out in a reactionary fashion, they take it upon themselves to seek out excitement and satisfy the human desire for experiences that are better and more thrilling than anything we had expected or anticipated.
The unknown is integral to Parrish, who goes out of his way to get out of his comfort zone, all the better to live life with the intensity it was meant for. His love of the unknown is anything but cuddly or warm and fuzzy. In “Color/Fast,” it’s ferocious. With purpose and passion, Parrish’s exhibition brings art and athleticism into graceful contact. That is rare and inspiring. It’s also a mark of Parrish’s originality. And it embodies his eagerness to share what he loves with others, despite society’s tendency to treat art and sports as if they had nothing in common.
In the popular imagination, artists have been thought of in all sorts of ways: as charlatans and schemers, sages and visionaries, romantics and rebels, misfits and dreamers. Sometimes their studios have been compared to research labs, where experiments are carried out and discoveries made. At others, the results of their labors have been compared to musical compositions, the wordless beauty of both evoking infinite emotions. Like doctors, artists have been called on to heal society’s ills. Like entertainers, they have been expected to amuse us. And since Pop Art brought the mechanics of the marketplace into the studio, artists have needed to be good at business, which, in this country, is often treated as the highest art of all.
Despite the range of roles artists have been called on to fill and the many purposes art has been called on to serve, it has rarely been paired with athleticism, either as a point of comparison or an endeavor with similar goals, perceptions, experiences, and pleasures. Parrish joins art and sports explicitly and implicitly, literally aligning elements of downhill skiing and abstract painting to profoundly affect our understanding of the various ways intense, bodily experiences alter our consciousness of the present and then, slowly and steadily, ripple through our memories long after those fleeting moments have passed.
“Color/Fast” consists of two bodies of work. The first is made up of Parrish’s trademark paintings: large-, medium-, and intimately scaled rectangles of variously tinted pigments suspended in various layers of glossy and foggy resin. Some of these works—which rest on the floor, are mounted on the wall, or hang from the ceiling—are boldly emblazoned with racing stripes, both vertical and horizontal. While Parrish’s meticulously crafted slabs of carefully balanced colors sit perfectly still, your eyes race across their sleek, shimmering surfaces and fly off into the vast spaces suggested by the depths that have been built into their patiently laid-up sections of poured and polished resin. Rather than functioning as decorative elements, Parrish’s racing stripes are physical emblems of your eyes’ activities: concrete graphics that hint at what happens when a viewer engages these highly energized—and rigorously disciplined—abstractions.
The second body of work consists of digital videos made by athletes Parrish commissioned to shoot runs down nearly vertical slopes in Alaska and across the horizontal surfaces of lakes in Utah. Unlike documentary films, these videos do not tell stories about particular trips or adventures. Instead, they transform the sensation of speed—of the world whooshing by in a blur—into exquisite details that generate sharp perceptions, in the here and now. To do that, Parrish has turned away from helmet-mounted cameras, which tend to show viewers what the run was like for the skier, long after he has made it home safely and downloaded the data. With flatfooted directness, Parrish’s videos invite viewers to see the world from the point of view of a ski. Made with tiny cameras mounted on the front and back ends of skis, his videos are up-close and immediate, sometimes abstract and always moving. Showing particles of snow, flashes of sunlight, and splashes of frothy water, they highlight our capacity to perceive time and space differently: as both a speedy blur and a point of crystalline stillness. It’s a kind of high-keyed serenity or hyper-stimulated tranquility. Athletes often refer to such experiences as being “in the zone.” When that happens, the self is not lost so much as it merges with its surroundings and becomes part of a continuum that is vaster and grander than any individual. At once humbling and thrilling, it takes us away from ourselves only to take us more deeply into ourselves.
Similar experiences unfold before Parrish’s paintings. Each contains worlds within worlds, expansive universes that are different each time you enter them. Ranging from the microscopic to the cosmic, Parrish’s paintings invite us to focus on the big picture and to contemplate our place within it. Think of his works not as static objects to be tastefully displayed and casually enjoyed, but as tools: specially designed implements that get the job done, making more experiences possible by bringing more people face-to-face with the real thing. Like the skis Parrish needs to race downhill, his paintings take viewers on trips through our imaginations and beyond, into worlds that are a whole lot wider—and wilder—than the one we leave behind when we get into their zone.
David Pagel is an art critic, educator, curator, dioramatist, and bike enthusiast. Pagel is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times. He serves as Chair of the Art Department at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California.