By Hannah Means-Shannon
It started with a video that toyed with our expectations a little. Video Rick informed us that while growing up, he discovered that the world was not a “perfect place”, but that “things on paper” could be a “perfect place”. While we sat pondering the rather existential depths of that reflection, we were informed that dogs and cats aren’t particularly “interested” in Rick’s work for some reason. They just don’t get the humor. At this point in the relaying video, you either laughed or you didn’t. If you didn’t, there was no point in exploring Rick Parker’s open studio day any further. There was still time to escape.
Having laughed, I wandered into the crowded dining room and took the only standing room left, catching Rick in mid-discussion with young people and seasoned art-lovers. Someone interjected questions about Rick’s upcoming projects, of which there were several, including a comic of Annoying Orange for Papercutz and hand-lettering the entire volume of Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell’s version of the Newbery Award winning Graveyard Book. But this wasn’t entirely surprising in the context of Rick’s intense career, from assemblage sculptor to Marvel Comics artist, from illustrator to auteur. In fact, I was beginning to suspect something about Rick: that he works tirelessly at his art and that art is his life in the broadest sense of the term. As if on cue, someone asked him about his work schedule. Shuffling the piles of binders full of sketch work from recent years spread over the table into a less teetering configuration, Rick described his typical day. He takes the kids to school then works 12 hours a day until around midnight; for “big deadlines”, he “secludes” himself in a small corner of the house “until the job gets done”. All of this time is necessary on his projects because everything is done by hand with complete attention to detail.
While Rick indulged more questions about his artistic development, I wandered around peering at the vast array of art objects blended with what might have, or might not have been, the materials of daily life. This rendered the entire house an art installment, and gave a strange, numinous quality to objects. The toothbrush included with paint brushes in a glass jar inside a closed cabinet surely had some significance, didn’t it? Or was it just Rick’s toothbrush?
I elbowed my way into the crowd when Rick moved toward some display cabinets and began to talk about his assemblages, constructed art objects that hearken back to Rick’s days dressing windows and confusing New York citizens with his Barking Dog Museum in the 1970’s and 80’s. These included a sheaf of crystals neatly tucked into a partially opened sardine can, a slice of cake created from a precisely dissected dictionary (which could still be opened and read), and his famous “nest egg” sculpture with an aged baseball catcher’s mitt carefully cradling a red-stitched painted egg-shell to resemble a baseball.
Assemblages had also invaded the kitchen, already chock-a-block with unusual objects. Centrally placed and defining, perhaps, the tone of the open house was a new sculpture by Rick: a heavy black steel baby carriage placed on table, filled with large bundles of colorfully-covered Zap Comix. Were they real? If this was the “birth” or perhaps the rough and tumble “infancy” of underground art, then the rest of the house was a kind of narrative of its progress from silver baby shoes (displayed in one assemblage) to riotous comics incarnations. In fact, it might have just as well been true that the house had been turned into an assemblage: a large, inhabited one embracing all other art forms. Thousands of pages of inked drawings relating to comics, paintings, prints, and sculptures proudly took their place as if posing for a family portrait to tell Rick’s story to his public.
Rick’s parlor evoked Victoriana turned on its head, from the mantelpiece arrayed with original Beavis and Butthead comic art to the central table where framed full-color prints of Rick’s latest brightly-colored grotesques, “Sidewalk Hero” pastiches, were arranged. Nearly every surface of the surrounding house displayed art or had been co-opted by it. There were sketches of Harvey Pekar, an alarming succession of ingenious gothic looking characters, and pen and ink drawings for books that seemed to pause, intriguingly, mid-narrative. No two works were even remotely alike, even when dealing with the same characters, a tribute to Rick’s relentless ingenuity.
One of Rick’s creative influences and longtime friend was also in attendance that day to contribute to the story: artist Dominick Di Meo. Though he originally studied art in Chicago, Dominick spent many years in New York, where he still resides and works in the Village. Dominick is multi-media in the manual sense, and employs a number of unorthodox materials like plastic wood filler and taxidermy materials to explore texture. He produces collages that “cannibalize” versions of previous work and produce a low “relief” sculpture on canvas surfaces to create a sense of uncertainty for the viewer over precisely what is the “same” and what is “different” between collages. Shows at the Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery in Chicago in 2009 and 2011 have drawn attention back to Dominick’s work as an important member of the “Monster Roster” group and fueled his desire to continue his work well into the future.
Images of Rick Parker often present a serious-looking artist in a black sweater, perhaps wearing a black beret, but almost certainly wearing dark sunglasses. It doesn’t take long, however, to discover the observant humor and humane spirit behind those glasses. Rick spent much of the afternoon encouraging young artists to “do as much as you possibly can”, but when there was a brief lull, he asked if I had any more questions for him. I really couldn’t think of any, since so many of the fascinating objects surrounding me spoke for themselves. Later, I did think of one more question, so I’ll ask it now: how much for the whole place, lock, stock, and barrel? It would be a shame to break up the collection. At his artists’ studio tour, Rick Parker assembled his life’s work thus far, and to everyone in attendance, it was clearly a masterpiece.
-by Hannah Means-Shannon, @HannahMenzies on twitter
-Rick Parker portrait by Seth Kushner. All other photos by Hannah Means-Shannon
Hannah Means-Shannon is a comics scholar and medievalist who has published articles on the works of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison in the International Journal of Comic Art, Studies in Comics, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, reference books, and upcoming essay collections. She is working on her first book for Sequart Research and Literacy Organization about Neil Gaiman, blogs about Alan Moore for Sequart, and teaches at Georgian Court University in New Jersey.