In Studio: Artist Erik Parra

by Admin on 10/31/2011

San Francisco Art Beat visited artist Erik Richard Parra in his art studio in San Francisco’s Mid-Market. Filled with brightly colored large and small canvases, drawings, books, and writings, Erik’s studio chronicles decades of art exhibitions, scholarship, and tenure of teaching at local schools. We talked with Erik about San Francisco, the arts, and past and future artistic ventures.

SFArtBeat: Your studio is right in the middle of the often debated Mid-Market. In your opinion, what do you think the city district needs to progress into a vibrant arts culture?

Erik Parra: Some of the conditions that make this neighborhood such a viable place for artists need to be respected. I believe in socially responsible gentrification. How can making neighborhoods activated and safer be a bad thing? So it should be done in a way that promotes a balanced community while maintaining the neighborhood’s existing diversity. As this whole project moves forward I feel there needs to be a balance between low, mid and high end housing and retail rents with some space designated for working artists, based on merit, at well below the market rate.

Basically a wide variety of arts organizations (at all levels of development) and artists of all disciplines living and working in the district will definitely make this place something very special on an international stage. Just as life forms flourish in biodiverse ecosystem similarly the neighbors as well as the arts will flourish if the diversity of the Mid-Market Arts neighborhood is cultivated. The potential to model socially responsible gentrification while supporting the arts is something people will travel from all over to experience, crafting success not just in terms of return on real estate investments but in terms of the quality and amount of important and life changing artistic production.

Originally from Texas, you then went to college in Midwest part of a fellowship, then living in Brooklyn, and now here. Why’d you choose San Francisco? How do these experiences frame your perception of the California/Bay Area art aesthetic?

I moved here five years ago to help develop the visual arts curatorial programme of Fivepoints Arthouse but I lived here before I went to graduate school. The landscape San Francisco is set in is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, color really sings here. Also the climate is very suitable to my particular disposition that is, my aversion to the sun.

Culturally, my fascination with the Bay Area really goes back to my introduction of 1950’s counterculture and then punk rock music and really grew in art school when I first discovered the work of David Park and Richard Diebenkorn.

I have always held positive associations of San Francisco as a place with a sense of political progressiveness and a healthy rebel spirit. It is this community of social diversity and political awareness I find incredibly thought inducing, which is fruitful for my creative practices. Wandering around the city I engage with the history of San Francisco and examine where it has come and imagine where it will go. Also San Francisco is such fertile ground for my visual appetite, I love pulling colors and forms from around the city.

You’ve participated in several successful exhibitions and art events both in Oakland and San Francisco. Is there such an obvious dichotomy of the cities’ art scenes? Is there anything that makes these cities’ art scenes unique?

There is definitely a unique vitality to the Oakland Art scene that generally feels different compared to what is happening in San Francisco. Take Oakland’s Art Murmur for instance, that could not happen as organically in San Francisco these days. But it speaks more to the availability of space and issues of access. Oakland is the land of giant studios, sunshine and backyard gardens versus the smaller studio, foggy, urbaneness of San Francisco.

That is not to say one is more vital than the other I see work made within each city that reflects the wealth of diversities evident in each city. Considering just the artwork, there is a rigorous, open and vital conversation happening throughout the Bay Area and projects like the Mid-Market Arts district if done correctly have the potential to foster and showcase this conversation.

In much of your work there is a silent, unassuming tension that adds strength to your art: whether it is a small orange base camp below grey mountains looming overhead, a seemingly fatal race-car crash with absent on-lookers, or monotone children playing on a jungle gym while scenarios with bursts of vibrant colors hover around them. Could you further explain how this tension works in your art and how you implement it?

For any given piece, it is important to dial into the right frequency of tension in order to sustain the conversation while simultaneously constantly opening up in new and interesting ways. This search for the right frequency of tension is expressed by working different levels of visual tensions, contrast in color choices or the way a material is handled for instance. Through this dialogue with each spectator, I hope to maximize the potential for positive social progress or, at the very least, ask rigorous questions about contemporary society and how we have gotten to where we are.

Visually, it’s that moment right before the crash. Where we know what is coming in terms of how it will potentially change the past and your mind anxiously races to choose which memories to preserve. Without depicting the storm directly and keeping a little bit of that post train-wreck fascination I look to engage viewers by suspending narrative implications in this quite highly energized state as the works then reveal their history, politics, references, etc.

Your collages include images of popular American culture and people, but images perhaps many wouldn’t be familiar with: stock images, or forgotten or esoteric moments in history; I would suspect reaching beyond your own personal experiences. Why are these images of particular interest to you? If you haven’t a personal experience with the images, what do they add to your art-making process or the intent of the work? 

I choose these nondescript moments of modern development from a collective memory of modernization culled from discarded popular printed materials. I look for pictures that are not too directly charged with their own specific narrative to work with.

I spend quite a bit of time with many images, searching, sourcing and editing. Any image I choose for a final piece, I have spent significant time with, in a way that feels personal. In addition to getting to know these images this time allows me the opportunity to be rigorous in steering away from very well known images that have an established too specific and direct narrative.

Working with lesser-known types of images adds some critical distance while setting the stage for different conversations about a variety of subjects. This open, critical distance also allows me to engage the spectator, however unassuming, visually followed by a strong feeling of familiarity. The potential in the seemingly banal to address the often difficult tenor of so many of our contemporary challenges is powerful.  So often, many of these challenges began or were drastically shaped in the era that the texts from which these images are sourced.

I am really interested in the psychological impact of the manipulation of historical narratives and the histories associated with American Modernism are some of my favorites. So I seek images that feel familiar and not immediately confrontational because I am physically reworking these visual histories into something I feel is far more productive.

Where will everyone get to see your work in the months to come?

Right now I am currently preparing for two forthcoming exhibitions. One will be a group exhibit at The Kala Art Institute in February and March of 2012 and from April 13 through May 5, 2012 I will have a solo exhibition at The Maltese Embassy, which will be my first solo exhibit in the city of San Francisco. More information with be available on my website as details firm up.