Parker, Purcell: Liberties Of Spirits

By April Rapier

Rosamond Wolff Purcell and Olivia Parker are often compared for their parallel sensibilities. Similarities unde­niably exist, in the form of vital ener­gies, a spiritual understanding (far beyond an endless quoting and imita­tion) of history, timelessness. Aside from the obvious references, how­ever, exist two artists who draw upon mutually intuitive, universal concerns and the fine art of collecting, but whose differences in methods of working within those similarities are of greater interest.
To the extent that Parker and Purcell synergize visually historical references with a collective conscious­ness approach to translation, they do so in a fashion that is as painterly as it is photographic. (Both use Polaroid materials.) This allows the viewer the enormous pleasure and luxury of having one's senses guided, emotions orchestrated; because so many ref­erences exist, there is more than enough stimulus to draw upon with­out feeling the claustrophobia of such enclosed (yet infinite) spaces. Rather than having to fight a feeling of being manipulated, the viewer's only po­tential hazard is sensory overload. The use of found objects (again, a collective spirit is called upon, but a wholly unique process results), rhythmic, musical and sculptural juxtapositionings, and a synthesis of masculine and feminine aspects (the obvious feminine symbols found in flowers or keepsake iconography, the aggressiveness, experimentation, challenges issued underlying the masculine side) constitute a philoso­phy and resulting methodology, but serve as starting point only. Both Parker and Purcell liberate the spirit contained within the objects that so inspire them. Although Purcell makes more use of the idea of collage and Parker more the idea of still life, no distant scrutiny with either group of images is possible — each pulls the observer into referential participa­tion, a response initially unobserved but ultimately passionate and engaging. Purcell accomplishes this through a more objective, detached stance, that of an observer, whereas Parker s point of view is more romantic, sen­sual, impassioned, participatory. Both artists call upon an instructive, moralist overlay, the antique imagery and objects supporting this (including the use of 19th century ambrotypes and other kinds of old photographs), yet do not proselytize. The synthetic nature of these appropriations stands up to an organic operative, the re-suiting equilibrium rare, indeed. The apparent contradiction is found in Purcell’s elevation of the ordinary, the breathing of fire and life into static, representational symbols, and Parker's domesticating, subduing, and finally integrating the unusual or out-of-hand. The intelligence and requisite meticulous craftsmanship immutably and finally places these images into a category that knows no equal.
Parker's marketing varies from advanced to naive (a fine example of this is found in “After the Barn Door,'' 1984, where a representation­al horse, reminiscent of a cave drawing, bounds through flowers, prisms, and unidentifiable motion in the frame, all conspiring to create a dream-like circumstance). Color ref­erences depth: the older work (see Signs of life,her First book published by Godine in 1978) was contentedly two-dimensional, using toning for "color"; the newer images, especially the 20x24 inch Polaroids, demon­strate more evidence of depth. Oddly, in this work, less attention is given to the purity and subtlety of color in the background areas, perhaps a mark of acceptance of or concession to the Polaroid material's limitations. For example, "Taking Turns," 1985, sees true-to-life color and form — roses floating in space alongside antique iron tools, both equally unanchorable. This seems, in a quite different way, to address reality versus illusion. There exists a continuum in the lyrical movement of the inanimate — although once humorous (most memorably, the dancing pea-pods in Signs of Life), an evolution toward whimsy now predominates (see, for example, "Four Pears," 1979, in her most recent book, Under the Looking Glass, 1983, an image in which glowing red embroidery thread is tied to, but doesn't support, a chorus of sag­ging pears). There is a brilliant suggestiveness to the use of shocking patches of blue surrounded by otherwise muted colors, the subsequent emergence of details assuming an anarchical status that might other­wise go unremarked. "The High Bel­fry," 1984, includes examples of this, and uses, among other devices, scale play, illusion, and a bizarre, surreal sense of order that is difficult to question in spite of evidence con­trary to realistic expectation or plausi­bility. In this image, cherries sit next to a drawing of a grand old building, all elements compartmentalized in a frame-like box. There is a formality to the presentation that reminds one of botanical specimens or naturalist studies (the fascination my grand­mother’s arrowhead and other ar­chaeological collections held comes immediately to mind, the catalytic stimulation of memory a pleasant by product of examining Parker’s pic­tures). Her vocabulary evokes the syntax of dreams — it attests to and forms a visual text that neither acknowledges nor disavows the recognizableness of the "things" that are so transformed as to defy definition. Two powerful examples of this are "Interrupted Information" and "The Burning Glass,” 1985, gorgeous tonal renderings of flowers and shadows, the latter taking on structural as well as referential form (light informing structurally, cascading impossibly). A less ephemeral subject matter is found in some of the black and white work of a few years prior (for example, "Dawn," 1983) — heavier, more recognizable things, including metal chain and tools, are incorporated and explored, yet retain their chi­meric ability to float and waver before one’s eyes. Close scrutiny is of little help in unraveling these puzzles.
Purcell creates chaos and disorder from subject matter that is difficult to perceive as subversive. Once neutral, existing imagery, such as architectural renderings and illustra­tions, become integrated — ground­ed — after a very painterly fashion, assuming an entirely new character based upon a ruthlessly elusive sys­tem of referral and reference. (Exceptions are found in a series of images including dead monkeys' skins.) She carefully studies the relations be­tween objects and icons, the cohesiveness when the two are joined, that stirs memory, executed with a scientist's detachment. The resulting data, a contemporary historical remake, is comprehensive, often at odds, and (one suspects) skewed. The presence of an object or form may be unidentifiable, but it is influ­ential nevertheless, suggesting a com­pression and layering of time. These mysterious areas in general evoke an emotional response; one rests there, refreshed by the abstraction, then able to wander back into the de­manding visionary world within the frame. These scenarios are more pointedly historical, both in terms of physical aspects and intended mes­sages. A windowpane motif is used (often shards of broken glass remain as editorial asides). In many images, there is carryover from frame to frame; others seem fragmented, the interruption on the surface inciden­tal, non-sequitur. One begins to imagine apparitions, spawned from the always-whirling movement of a vortex, around which the image un­ravels. Any serenity is deceptive, for herein lies a language of intensity, one which pushes the capacities of assimilation to the limit. The collec­tive screams and sighs of the universe are locked up in Purcell's construc­tions. Torn postcards, marbled papers, skeletons, anatomical illustrations, references to death, old photographs, refracted, suggestive human forms often hovering watch­fully, add to the element's dry, powdery appearance, as though dis­appearance is imminent; the pieces as a whole, however, have solidity and weight, and serve as an authoritative resource. The physical integration of materials never competes with or overpowers the vision — the alliance is remarkable if a bit theatrical. Ob­jects are used more as players, persona, activated by the instinctive anima of an aggressive idea. Some of Purcell's titles are elusive, even though directly referential or voyeuristic: "Write a Letter to Your Congressman'' incorporates faces, both sculp­tural and photographically rendered, with a larger measure of recogniz­able imagery than usual. Other titles are more descriptive, without affec­tation: "Macaque'' m no way pre­pares the viewer for an eviscerated and restitched monkey whose arms reach upward pleadingly as it floats on iridescent flower petals, or "Monkey in a Box,”whose gestures of sorrow are contained in tight quarters. The most potent of this series is the least graphic or illustra­tive — in "Monkey Ear," the body of the animal blends into the back­ground, and the hair on the head is offset by its different coloration. The desiccated feet and ear (highlighted by the orangish hair dramatically swept back) appear to be scattered, or casually fallen as in repose. This series is difficult, sorrowful, terribly evocative (not unlike the moody por­traits from her first book, A Matter of Time, published by Godine in 1975). Purcell's use of color is hypnotic, lull­ing the viewer into a false sense of safety. At times monochromatic in spirit ("Eve" uses minimal coloration), this usage calls to mind aging, an assertive antiquity. In wandering through the photographs, one feels the intimacy of bearing witness to a thought process as well as a finished product (evident in, for example "To be Erected for the State of New Hampshire," or the tableau-like “Angelus,” the story of a biplane, cows, and their caretaker, a horse drawn cart in which cargo is dimin­ished to nonsensical status, and a dog with a gasmask, bespeaking Purcell's interest in World War I). A more still-life treatment is seen in "Trouble at the Bottom of the Old Man's Garden," where nature is misap­propriated — seed pods become eggshells, contents emerged and replaced, newspaper chewed as though in preparation of a nest, layers and folds of cloth, and a startling face in the upper left corner, overseeing clues. Purcell's appreciation of the gesture and grace of something as in­elegant as wire or detritus, in associ­ation with a profound use of the symbolic content of found imagery, is evident in the aforementioned "Eve.'' Interiors, in the peace of decline and abandon, move panel to panel, through corridors to striking vistas, as secrets emerge. And then, one is confronted with a powerful and in­sightful contradiction — the insertion of a contemporary image showing a woman with hands clasped and bound by a coiled snake. The snake's head points upward, laying flat against the woman's body, faces almost touching. This surrealist vision (found in the first book as well as the second, Half-Life, 1930, Godine) is character­istic of the surprises lying in wait for the intrepid observer.