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Christchurch painter Miranda Parkes takes contemporary abstraction beyond the limit.

Working in her studio one day, Christchurch artist Miranda Parkes looked at the big yellow painting she had just completed and felt frustrated because the work seemed static and unsatisfying.

What happened next was to prove a defining moment for the young artist who was then studying for a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Canterbury because it marked the beginning of a series of startlingly different works that are either ‘sculptural paintings’ or ‘painterly sculptures’. They defy the boundaries between the two disciplines and extend the conversation about what can seem like an exhausted genre – abstract painting. Parkes kicked the canvas so hard the stretcher broke and the painting twisted, suddenly appearing more dynamic and full of movement. Through this act, she was literally delivering a kick in the pants to one of art history’s sacred cows – the firm, smooth surface of a stretched canvas – and since that day she has continued to kick ass by scrunching, folding and manipulating her canvases so they burst from the walls in bouts of unruly exuberance, though you can still see a trace of the wooden frames that support these candy-striped confections.

The gutsy titles and jarring not-so-tasteful colours of these paintings underline their robust physicality and invoke the physical processes of their making – emphasising painting-the-verb as distinct from painting-the-noun. Beamer, Crasher, Groover, Kisser, Listener and Slumper are all members of a tight-knit family whose gene pool encompasses modernist abstraction, yet each work has a subtly different personality.

Groover’s central core of icy blue paint with red stamen-like lines radiating from the centre suggests a flower, or a pair of lips, and the painting’s crisp blue stripes look like shirt fabric or window displays in fabric and clothing stores. As its title suggests, Listener is a much quieter painting with icy green cracks and crevices. “The environment does influence what comes out in the work. At the moment I’m making paintings that look like glaciers or ice; they’re light blue and they fold inwards. A year ago I spent three months in the snow in Toronto; I get stimulated by stuff that’s around me all the time,” says Parkes.

In Listener the distinction between painting and sculpture is almost entirely lost because, though, like all Parkes’ paintings, it comprises conventional materials – paint on stretched canvas – the underlying stretcher is almost invisible. Slumper, which Parkes made as a site-specific work for Christchurch Art Gallery’s recent exhibition, Out of Erewhon, takes the onslaught against two-dimensionality further by travelling around a corner of the gallery. Its pink, fleshy centre gives the work a voluptuous, even sexual presence.

Last year was a fruitful one for the 29-year-old artist. She was awarded the William Hodges Fellowship, living and working in Invercargill where she had a solo show at the Southland Museum and Art Gallery and contributed three works for City Gallery Wellington’s Telecom Prospect 2007 – Crasher, which looks like an unmade bed whose striped sheets are besmirched with splotches of tomato red and acid green; a tiny painting titled Breaker and a video titled Bathroom Wall.

Stripes are a recurrent feature in Parkes’ work. “They are a very useful device in painting. At the moment I’m working with colour and they provide a way for me to use colour without having to keep determining the shapes. They give you a structure and they reinforce the sculptural element of the work by showing how the flat canvas has been distorted. As a painter every mark you make since Modernism is loaded with history. There has been a feeling of anxiety or hopelessness around painting as a discipline; how can painting progress after Modernism? My work consciously addresses this idea.”

Though they look naïve and spontaneous, Parkes’ paintings stem from a close study of art history. At university she studied the interface between painting and sculpture – particularly the installations of Canadian artist Jessica Stockholder, which are like exploded paintings the viewer can walk around in. These are made from everyday materials like paint, fridges, balls of wool and the like. Parkes also focussed on Abstract Expressionism – Barnett Newman and other painters who used stripes and flat colour fields, attempting to create a ‘pure’ visual language and invoke a sense of spirituality and mysticism in the viewer.

By borrowing Newman’s stripes, albeit rendering them in colours that would make the American abstractionist’s hair stand on end, and then ‘destroying’ or distorting them in the most disrespectful of ways, Parkes is asserting the beauty of the everyday rather than trying, as the Abstract Expressionists did, to transcend the banal. In that way she is paying homage to painting’s past but also extending the project.

“I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with those Modernist painters because I don’t appreciate some of their ideas, but I do enjoy the formal properties of their work, and in quite a superficial way, I am using or re-using some of these formal properties in my work.”

Looking at her paintings is like witnessing a struggle between opposites – masculine stripes battle rounded feminine forms, the folded puffed-out canvas strains against the rigidity of its supporting wooden frame, cool colours rub up against hot strident ones. As well as Newman’s rigorous intellectual stripes you can see the sensual, rippling lines on the surface of David Hockney’s Los Angeles swimming pools. And the way her paintings invoke pleasure and engage so strongly with the body of both maker and viewer echoes feminism’s belief that the physical and experiential is equally as important as the intellectual.

“The paintings are not intentionally or overtly sexual but when you take something that you expect to be stretched flat and you move it around, it takes on an organic quality – and everything organic has a sexual element to it.”

Parkes is also a fan of figurative painters from different eras, and during a research trip to New York to look at modernist abstraction, she was surprised to find herself wowed by the work of early 20th-century artists like Picasso, Cezanne and Matisse – in particular their vibrant explorations of colour and form. Surprisingly, for someone so passionate about painting, Parkes didn’t begin making objects designed to last beyond a single exhibition until the first year of her Masters degree.

“There’s an element of destruction or at least of deconstruction in all my work, although I don’t literally destroy as many works as I used to. As a student I destroyed all my paintings because I disliked adding objects to a world that is already full of objects, and this often led to more eloquent pieces or installations.”

For her third-year submission she pulled up the sheet of cardboard on her studio floor, with all its incidental marks and blobs of paint, and exhibited it on the wall.

So, what marked the change from ephemeral installation-based work to more permanent works on stretched canvas?

“Partly it was the idea that when you have something that is rectangular and hangs on the wall, there’s a tension; it gives you a model to work against and I really liked that, so I went back to making objects that hang on the wall and relate back to the model of a rectangular stretched canvas.”

With Christchurch dealer gallery 64zero3 representing her, the purchase of her work Slumper by Christchurch Art Gallery and two works in Dunedin Public Art Gallery’s exhibition, The Secret Life of Paint, Parkes’ decision to give up her day job as a nanny and concentrate full-time on her art was a smart one. Clearly she is an artist who is taking a refreshingly different path through the well-travelled terrain of contemporary abstract painting.

Virginia Were

Miranda Parkes solo exhibition at Auckland gallery Vavasour Godkin is on until 9 September.

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