Of Trash and Tyranny:

The Art of Kenneth E. Parris III

By Dee Dee Vega

One of the first things that artist Ken Parris said to me when I visited his studio recently was, “All of my pieces have a foundation of garbage.” An interesting truism regarding his chosen materials since Parris’s studio is tidy and visually unified enough to seem as if you’re walking onto either a movie set or visiting the Bohemian artist neighbor of the cast of Friends. As I first saw Parris’s constructions and paintings in the space, my eyes fell on his warn copy John Dewey’s Art As Experience and suddenly I had effortlessly encountered a context in which to place his work. For Dewey, the aesthetic experience has its roots in our interactions with common objects. Not only found material appropriated into an art object itself, but in the very constant processes of sensory interaction with everyday things. Ken Parris’s art seeks to draw the viewer into a visual narrative that uses our associations with everyday objects in his pieces and conceptual notions of “fine art” to build silent stories. As it was imperative for Dewey that not only the artist, but the viewer was active in the process of the art “experience,” the subtle ambiguity and whispered stories as well as the challenging political assertions alive in Parris’s work demand the emotional involvement of his audience—whether in a gallery or in the street.

The first grouping of Mr. Parris’s work consists of constructions made from found objects and painting as well as his Article Series that is thematically specific, but utilizes similar visual conventions and medium. These works are based on the interplay between the images rendered in the lustrous surface of the picture plane painted in acrylic and oil and the physical insets (in what I strongly hesitate to, but will nonetheless call “feminine,” interior, red-velvet lined) holding objects. The woodworking for each piece is executed by Parris, he “dumpster dives” (his words!) for the rest of the objects. The imagery is derived from dreams and passing ideas such as the irrational juxtaposition of objects and image in works such as Worn and the installation Blossom.

The Article Series utilizes the familiar verbal/visual language of his early constructions, but is anchored in a specific event in Parris’s life at a particular moment in time. These works seek to explore his relationship and understanding of a specific happening or event as it evolves with the artistic process. Articles 2.1, Article 2.2, Article 2.3 are very personal yet illusive images with no discernable connection to the secret event in Parris’s life. The boxes consist of a painting and in this case, a blank book—mounted and drawn upon. There is something about the paintings that seem to intentionally nod (or perhaps wink is a better word) to pop culture imagery. The linear hard edge and sexually rife renderings are the unsuspecting lovechild of R. Crumb and Caravaggio.

Parris’s art has taken new form and ventured into far more topical and politically charged subject matter. His Concept Blocks are 5.5 inch paintings placed in a solid wood form constructed by the artist. They are not meant to hang, but rather their weighty presence felt on a physical surface or in your hand—a tactile toy, conceptual building blocks if you will. The Homeland Security Series for example, are paintings of mysterious sunglass-masked figures a la Matrix (which strangely resemble Matt Dillon, as I look at them) that are layered on top of advertisements and other mass-produced paper. The images are familiar and disturbing painted in broad and vivid colors.

Parris’s most recent body of work, his Direct Action Art, has taken on an entirely new form and thus a whole new frame of involvement commenting on the tyrannical and empirical capitalist American political situation. The Direct Action pieces are constructed from cardboard and often utilize mass produced objects and images from the media coupled with silk screened pictures and text. The pieces themselves are “removable” graffiti. They are designed to fit into the space that holds advertisements in New York City subway cars where riders are bombarded every day with the unrelenting pressure to consume. The subway patrons are the ultimate judges of the work as they can remove it, keep it, destroy it or leave it there to see. Parris has created certain silk-screen images—a meat grinder, an umbrella, a bird—that are repeated and paired with different backgrounds and political statements. Of course, artists such as Jenny Holtzer and Barbara Kruger have created highly visible artworks that employ the same tactics. But Parris’s distinction relies upon the fact that the works of art are not only anti-capitalist in both their explicit ideology and “free” public exhibition—but are highly ephemeral in their use of common, discarded materials. I think Dewey would have approved.

Ken Parris’s future projects include further installations and the continuation of his Direct Action series, as well as acting as Art Director for the film Permanent Tear for the production company Paramichari.

Mr. Parris is also designing the cover of the upcoming Willpilot album “Okay Good.”

Mr. Parris’s work can be purchased directly through the artist at kenparris3@yahoo.com.

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